Book Review – Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike

31858255Thru-hiker extraordinaire Liz Thomas shares her wealth of hard-earned experience in Backpacker Magazine’s Long Trails: Mastering the Art of the Thru-Hike. She covers the subject thoroughly, from why thru-hiking is appealing to an overview of several long trails to mental and physical readiness to logistics to nutrition to equipment.

One of the strengths of this book is how much Thomas emphasizes the “hike your own hike” philosophy. Each thru-hiker has his or her own reasons for hiking, as well as an individual approach to the trail. What is right for one hiker is not the right choice for another. This book highlights alternatives that will benefit different types of hikers instead of a “one-size-fits-all” method.

The sections on budgeting and scheduling are practical, presenting useful strategies for breaking down the daunting job of planning a thru-hike into manageable tasks. I benefited most from her tips on preparing for the physical and mental challenges along the trail–lots of useful pointers here, such as practicing packing and unpacking as part of the daily exercise regimen and how to communicate clearly with a resupply contact back home.

Rather than being intended for the beginning backpacker, Long Trails assumes some familiarity with backpacking and seeks to bridge the gap from shorter trail experience to thru-hiker. The information is focused on long trails rather than a weeklong trip.

The lush photography makes for both a beautiful and well-presented book. The pictures illustrate concepts nicely and show some of the wonderful scenery along the trail. I also appreciated Thomas’ cheerful, friendly tone; she comes across as very down-to-earth.

Several “asides” of paragraph-to-page length recount other hikers’ experiences. These frequently amplify Thomas’ points, and sometimes present alternative opinions and methods. A lengthy section examines different hiker’s gear lists piece-by-piece, showing multiple individual approaches to equipment.

Long Trails is vital reading for anyone interested in a longer trail–say, any trail where a resupply is necessary. Whether you’re headed for a more modest challenge or setting out on the Continental Divide Trail, this book will help you get there.

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Book Review – Walden

800px-walden_thoreau3.5 stars. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden recounts his time living on the shore of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. For two years, he lived in a small cottage, eschewing society and excess for simple fulfillment of the necessities of life.

The first chapter, “Economy”, outlines what he saw as the bare essentials for his life, and how he met those needs by living off the land. I found this chapter to be the most meaningful, especially how his life was richer, and he was happier, for living sparsely. Later chapters evaluate what humans should aspire to be, namely living a clean, disciplined life. He stresses the need for ongoing evaluation of one’s moral standards as the tool for progress as a society. I was also struck by his emphasis on living deliberately–consciously deciding one’s actions, as well as being present in the moment (what you kids these days would term “mindfulness”)–and its role in self-determination and happiness.

I’ll let some quotes from Thoreau speak for themselves:

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely…

A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince.

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.

…the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains.

We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the seacoast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thundercloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.

While I enjoyed and appreciated Thoreau the philosopher and Thoreau the naturalist, I’m not particularly sure I care for Thoreau the person or Thoreau the writer. There’s a certain snobbery to his ersatz self-reliance; he conveys the idea that his idyllic condition is the natural state of mankind, and to deviate from his philosophy is to deviate from this One True Path. And while he makes a great deal of his situation, the reality is that he lived on a friend’s property that was a 40 minute walk from Concord, sheltered from extra cold nights at the Emerson’s house, and took his laundry home to his mom–hardly the life of a rugged individualist solely responsible for his own survival!

I’m certainly aware that I’m judging 150 year old writing standards, but Thoreau seems to prefer unnecessarily complex sentence structures and long, rambling passages:

In the meanwhile all the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine-bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake—if the Walden nymphs will pardon the comparison, for though there are almost no weeds, there are frogs there—who would fain keep up the hilarious rules of their old festal tables, though their voices have waxed hoarse and solemnly grave, mocking at mirth, and the wine has lost its flavor, and become only liquor to distend their paunches, and sweet intoxication never comes to drown the memory of the past, but mere saturation and waterloggedness and distention.

(And that’s just a sentence I picked at random.) It’s fairly easy to zone out on page after page of raising beans or measuring the depth of Walden Pond anyway, and when combined with convoluted prose, it gets pretty darn near unreadable.

If Thoreau would only have applied his philosophy of economy to words–most of the passages I wound up highlighting were sparsely worded and the richer for it:

Man is an animal who more than any other can adapt himself to all climates and circumstances.

The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour.

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time.

A written word is the choicest of relics. It is something at once more intimate with us and more universal than any other work of art. It is the work of art nearest to life itself.

The nature lover in me enjoyed his lush descriptions of Walden Pond. He definitely has an eye not only for the details of nature but for the responses and feelings that nature imparted to him. The chapter “Sounds” particularly struck me as an excellent example of naturalist writing as he describes the noises both natural and man-made that punctuated his days.

I regret that I did not visit Walden Pond on either of my recent trips to the Boston area (a business trip in 2015 and a vacation in 2016), and I will remedy that exclusion the next time my travels take me to New England.

Walden deserves its place of importance in the canon of literature. I feel wholesomely enriched by reading it. Even though the writing was not always to my taste, I am appreciative of Thoreau’s work and philosophy. While I may not read it in its entirety again, I’m sure I will revisit parts–perhaps even those I didn’t care for the first time–and continue to evaluate my own principles against those set forth here.

Book and TV Review – American Gods

983100After suffering through the stultifying Starz adaptation of American Gods, I felt the need to reread Neil Gaiman’s novel–a reminder of why this book is such a glorious, sprawling, and meaningful mess. With the comparison between the book and the TV adaptation fresh in my mind, I noticed three primary failures of the series.

First, the pacing was horrendous. The material covered in the series was around the first 130 pages of the 500+ page book. Not only was new material invented (an episode of Mad Sweeney and Laura together, that actually was one of the better parts of the series), but scenes were painfully stretched to their extreme limit as the filmmakers tried to milk every visual nuance from matches being lit and checkers being moved.

Second, the dialog and phrasing that makes Gaiman’s writing so rewarding was dropped from the show or clumsily reworded as painful narration. A lot of the fun of the book is the repartee between Shadow and Mr. Wednesday; very little of that exists in the show.

And perhaps most importantly, the series lost the sense of irreverant humor of the book–instead of the mix between tall tale and long-running con game of the novel, we got a massively overinflated dose of “this is important filmmaking, not some story you can enjoy!” An example of this is the checkers game between Shadow and Czernobog, which is a fast-paced affair in the book, with Shadow’s redemptive victory in the second game immediately followed by a humorous suggestion for best two out of three. In the show, every portentous play is shown in high-saturation and slow-mo detail. The story of American Gods is undeniably, intentionally weird. The novel celebrates that weirdness while the show bogs down in it.

Ultimately, readers are continually rewarded with Gaiman’s wit, storytelling ability, and talent for phrasing. We know, even when we can’t make heads or tails of the story itself, that Gaiman will bring it home with panache and impact. The Starz series does not inspire anywhere near that confidence; clumsy scene after clumsy scene shows that the filmmakers understand visual imagery better than stories. In this battle between the old god of the book and the new god of networks seeking the next Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, there’s no question who wins.

— My original review of the book–
5 stars.  Vast, sprawling, rambling, yet still engrossing and extremely readable. One thing that I really appreciate about Neil Gaiman is that, even with his heavy use of allegory, he trusts his audience to let them draw their own conclusions. This lack of heavy-handed messaging allows his books to have different meanings to different readers. “American Gods” is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of book; I thoroughly enjoyed the snappy prose, kitschy road trip plot, examination of mythology as storytelling, and fast-paced yet insightful look at the American character.

Book Review – Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks

Hike Smart
Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden

4 stars.  Hike Smart: Tips and Tactics for Improving Your Treks by Ann Marie Brown and Terra Breeden draws from the authors’ extensive backpacking experience to present a readable, instructive guide that benefits novices and experienced hikers alike. Topics range from safety to comfort to gear selection to navigational skills.

What I appreciated most about this guide is its conversational tone. Most hiking guides read like a textbook, alternating checklists with dry instructional material. The authors here do an excellent job relating information on a personal level, as if they are discussing what works for them, and most importantly why it works for them. In addition to their own experiences, they relate many anecdotes from other hikers. These anecdotes blend well with the text, either illustrating the rationale of the authors or providing an experience that they analyze and use to teach.

I also am a fan of the authors’ middle ground stance on ultralight gear. Many ultralight advocates are far more willing than I to trade ounces on their backs for substantial reductions in comfort and safety and/or more investment of time in camp and on the trail (and, to their credit, they have mastered the skills and attitude necessary for that). Brown and Breeden favor an approach of understanding and evaluating the trade-offs presented by ultralight gear–shedding weight where it makes sense, yet not being shy to pack something heavier that elevates one’s hiking experience.

Brown and Breeden’s self-deprecating wit adds to the warmth of Hike Smart. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and little asides like “If you’re a worry-wort like Terra, carry both” are a refreshing break from the “ZOMG You’re Doing It WRONG!!!” attitude that’s unfortunately found in many online hiker communities.

The only real shortcoming of this book is that some topics seem biased towards the experience of backpacking either solo or duo. For example, the section on stoves can be summarized with “use a Jetboil/MSR Reactor integrated canister stove.” While that is a good solution for the solo hiker, it’s not nearly as good when cooking for 4 or more.

I’d also say that this book is very western US-centric. This would be a complaint if the gorgeous pictures of all their Sierra Nevada hikes hadn’t managed to take all my breath away! But I did notice that while topics such as how to secure a tent when tent stakes cannot be driven are covered, whereas there is no real discussion of the use of a hammock as bed and shelter, as is popular in eastern US backpacking.

Rather than the traditional hiking guide which focuses on instruction in a particular method, Hike Smart relies on teaching sound decision-making skills for hikers. I found myself agreeing with a great deal of this book. In many cases, the authors have put into words what I have discovered through experience or by accident. I checked this out from the library expecting to skim it, and found myself reading, enjoying, and learning from it.

Book Review – The Solace of Open Spaces

1669903 stars. In the 1970s, Gretel Ehrlich went to Wyoming on assignment for work. After her partner died of cancer, she stayed as a ranch worker, finding comfort in the bleak landscapes, hard work of sheepherding, and tight-lipped but warm residents. The Solace of Open Spaces is a collection of her essays describing the land, people, and animals around her.

Ehrlich’s prose is very lyrical, and she has a good eye for detail. She describes the connections between land and people eloquently. The writing shows her command of language and description with moments of tenderness, humor, and erudition.

The weakness of this collection is that I feel like I’m looking at pretty postcards that are written to someone else. I can admire the picture and the writing, but I never connect with it. Ehrlich talks very little about herself or events that occur, so the vignettes felt flat to me. Given the title of the book and her situation, I perhaps expected something more moving on the personal level.

The Solace of Open Spaces seems, to me, more a book to admire than to enjoy.

Book Review – Some Kind of Courage

255784084 stars. Some Kind of Courage by Dan Gemeinhart is equal parts adventurous, thrilling, and touching. All that young Joseph Johnson has left of his family is his pony Sarah, and now she’s been sold to a no-count horse trader against his will. He sets off to get her back, encountering bandits, whitewater, a grizzly, and other dangers, as well as unexpected friendship and sense of belonging.

Gemeinhart’s talent is that he writes both action and emotion very well. Told in Joseph’s folksy first-person narration, the book is readable both for the theme and the plot. I tore through it fairly quickly, starting it in the evening and finishing it on lunch break the next day, excited to read both the bittersweet and the valedictory moments of Joseph’s adventure.

The only real flaw of the book is that there are some moments that feel a little “Chicken Soup for the Soul”-esque, slightly overwrought with morality and message. Neither bad nor emotionally manipulative, mind you, just a little sweetly maudlin.

I continue to be impressed with Dan Gemeinhart’s writing; he’s talented with words, characters, and story. Some Kind of Courage is one of those books that is instantly appealing. Recommended for adventure and animal lovers of all ages.

Book Review – Code Name Verity

134817485 stars. Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity is the story of two friends in World War II. Maddie is a working-class girl who is good with engines and fascinated by airplanes. She befriends Julie, a quick-witted woman from Scottish gentry. As war tears through Britain, Maddie becomes a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary, ferrying planes and people to aid the war effort. Julie becomes an agent for the Special Operations Executive. Their lives intersect over and over, until the fateful mission that has Maddie flying her best friend to France. They are shot down, with Julie captured by the Gestapo and Maddie hiding with the French Resistance.

The gripping account is told first through Julie’s written confession for the Gestapo and then Maddie’s anguished narration as she tries to both keep hidden and rescue her best friend. Either perspective is a pageturner on its own. The combination of the two is even more powerful. Wein gives connections between the two stories that add depth, explanation, and resonance to what has already been revealed. I suspect that I’ll need a rereading to pick up on some of the more subtle threads that bind the two women together.

Chief among the literary tools that make Code Name Verity such a thriller is effective use of the unreliable narrator. I’m not sure how much truth there is in Julie’s confession–nor do I want her to be truthful! It’s refreshing to read a book where this device is relevant to the story rather than just being used for its own sake.

Extensive research by the author is obvious in the realistic feeling of the era. War jargon, events, atmosphere, and details contribute to the verisimilitude of the book. The attitudes of the times, especially towards women and the service they provided, reflect in the characters. Maddie’s desire to fly, and willingness to do so in whatever capacity she can, is central to her character; I understand and empathize with her.

Code Name Verity packs quite an emotional punch as well. There are plenty of moments of triumph, heartbreak, terror, and suspense. The relationship between Julie and Maddie is central to the story, and the connection between them was well crafted. Their worry for each other heightens the anguish of their separation and drove the tension of the story.

Code Name Verity is a fantastic book that I’ll read again for sure. Elizabeth Wein has created a well-written, compulsively readable story that thrills and moves.