Thursday, November 6, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

A Walk in the Woods:  Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail

Bryson's tale of his attempt at the Appalachian Trail is an amazing and awesome one.  He had been living in and hiking in Britain for the past 20 years, and after moving back to New Hampshire, was on a mission to reacquaint himself with America.  He had seen the entrance near his home of the Appalachian Trail, and decided to look into it.  After doing extensive research into the AT, the areas it lies on, and its creation and history, Bill Bryson sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, and sees America as few rarely do. 
The AT extends from Georgia to Maine and covers over 2,200 miles of wilderness.  Extending through the various mountain systems of the Appalachian mountain chain, the trail starts at the hike to Springer Mountain, and ends at Mount Katahdin.  Bryson and his buddy Stephen Katz start out at the beginning in Georgia in frigid weather.  They hike their way through the Georgia part of the trail and into North Carolina.  They hiked alongside the Tennessee and North Carolina border and then into Smoky Mountains.  After making it to Smoky Mountains National Park, they had been hiking forever it seemed and were really getting into the flow of the hike, finding their paces and being able to hike miles a day, day after day.  They had just begun to feel like they could do it and were getting accustomed to the trail.  Then, at one stop along the trail in a gift shop they see a 4 foot model of the trail, which depicts their progress as a mere 2 inches on the entire length.  It was at that point that Bryson realized they weren't going to hike the entire trail, so they decided to skip the rest of North Carolina, having already seen 3 states hiking, and get out of the Smokies.  They got a ride to a spot further up the trail and they hiked the rest of their time in Virginia, along its Blue Ridge.  
They had only taken 6 weeks for their adventure, which, I found odd considering all of Bryson's research into the trail, and it's a feet usually completely thru-hiked in about 5 months.  2 months is the quickest anyone has hiked the entire trail.  So perhaps he knew he would only be section hiking it from the beginning?  I didn't get that part.  So Katz, who came into New Hampshire from Iowa to meet Bryson and make the hike with him, went back home after they parted ways.  Bryson took a couple of months to take care of some things, but found himself wanting to get back to the trail, so he returned to the AT and section hiked parts of the trail by himself, leaving his car, hiking, and then returning, driving farther up on the trail past where he had hiked, parking, hiking, going back to the car, etc.  He made it through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, driving along the trail and visiting towns surrounding it.  He included a lot of information about the industrial parts of Pennsylvania, and a town that had been abandoned because of underground coal fires.  He would day hike parts of it, and then walk back to the car and drive ahead some more.  He hiked most of New Hampshire and Vermont this way, and he was so close to home, he just would hike so much a day, then go back to his car and be home at night.   
Katz rejoined him later to take on Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness.  They set out for their second span together.  This part of the trail is much different than the rest.  It is seriously 100 miles after the town of Monson, with no towns or any civilization until you reach Mount Katahdin at the end.  They decided to start a few days before Monson, and hike it to get refreshed and then head off into the Wilderness.  They made it into the 100 Mile Wilderness and found it quite different than the rest of the trail.  They had to wade through more rivers with their packs held above their heads, and there was more difficult terrain to cross.  It was supposed to be 10 days across the Wilderness, but on around the third day, Katz and Bryson end up getting split up, and Bryson searches for Katz most of the day, hiking miles ahead and retracing miles of the trail, to no avail.  He ends up camping at a pond that night, the only night he camped without Katz, not knowing for sure where his friend was or if he was okay.  Katz was out of water at the time he got lost.  Bryson rises in the morning and starts looking again, and he finally finds him further on ahead on the trail.  He had gone past their rendezvous point, and left the trail in thirst searching for a lake he saw from a high point.  He ultimately got lost for hours, but found his way somehow back to the trail.  After meeting up with Bryson again, Katz is unsettled and shaky, having thought he was done for without water in the wilderness.   They ultimately decided to give it up, saying they needed to stop pretending to be Mountain men. 
Well, there is my shitty synopsis, which pretty much makes the book sounds very uninteresting, but you would have to read it to get the effect.  It's actually a very good book.  That's just the story of their adventure.  It's filled with great details of the terrain they see on the way and the people they meet, fellow hikers on the AT, townspeople, etc.  He gives a pretty graphic and objective view of the trail.  Bryson fell in love with the Appalachian Trail and pleads for its conservation, but on hiking it, he grew to hate it, while still loving it.  The book is filled with a lot of historical facts about the trail itself, from its creator and creation, to the people who maintain it, to the diseases you can catch, the bacteria growing on it, and wildlife surrounding it.  He goes into the history of towns across Pennsylvania and other states, painting a wonderful picture of the trail.  It's a pretty insane accomplishment, just that there IS such a trail, but to hike the entire thing is definitely a colossal achievement, especially thru-hiking.  Bryson also hits on the number of people that try the AT every season, and the 10% that actually make it thru-hiking (or even section hiking) all of the way to Katahdin.  There are stories of people that have very near lost their minds in the woods hiking.  Bryson says it changes people, and some people it almost unnerves completely.  Solitary confinement in trees gets to them, but they continue to push on.  To trudge, as Bryson says.  Bryson himself was a little bummed after they dropped off it and quit, but Katz explained it to him in a way I agree with: they DID hike the Appalachian Trail.  They started in Georgia and hiked in snow, in blizzards, in hot weather, in the rain and in frigid cold.  And they did end in Maine.  They hiked through different states and mountain systems.  They hiked mile after mile.  They hiked mountain after mountain.  They didn't make it to Mount Katahdin, but they hiked the Appalachian Trail.  And it was good.
                *This book is what inspired my buddy Pat to try to hike the AT.  Some would say that he didn't really do it because he didn't finish, but, I think, as this book explains, although he may not have been in the 10% that finished thru-hiking this insane endeavor, at least he went and tried it.  He set foot on it.  He camped on it.  He lived it for even a short while.  He wanted to see what it was about.  Sometimes realization is the best wisdom.  Even to see part of it would be exciting to me!  So, I personally think Pat has also hiked the Appalachian Trail.  Kudos, Pat.

- MS

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: "2,428 Words on the Catcher in the Rye"

The Catcher in the Rye is basically a story of troubled youth but with some other undertones.  It starts out from a narrator's point of view, through Holden Caulfield.  He first off says he doesn't want this to be his life story, but is recalling some "madman stuff that happened to him last Christmas".  It seems he is in a hospital under psychiatric care.  In the beginning of the book, Holden Caulfield is a 16 year old immature boy from New York City.  He has been kicked out of prep school after prep school.  The story starts at Pencey Prep, where two weeks before Christmas break, Holden has been kicked out of Pencey Prep for failing four of his five classes.  He goes to meet with his History teacher, Mr. Spencer, and he tells him that life is a game and it should be played by the rules.  Holden is young and immature and doesn't really think much of this advice. It's a Saturday and he has until Wednesday to be at his parent's home in New York City when they know he should be coming home from break.  He returns to his dormitory to find Robert Ackley, an obnoxious kid with tons of acne that won't leave him alone.  His roommate, Ward Stardlater, is conceited and Holden says a "secret slob".  Stradlater asks Holden to write a composition for him because he is going on a date with Jane Gallagher, a girl that Holden used to be friends with several years ago.   Holden writes the composition for Stradlater about his kid brother's baseball mitt.  His kid brother, Allie, died of leukemia.  When Stradlater returns, he gets mad at Holden for writing such a bad essay.  Holden asks him how his date with Jane was, and when he insinuates he may have had sex with Jane, Holden snaps and tries to hit him, but is overpowered by Stradlter.  Holden debates staying around Pencey until people leave for break, but he decides to leave that night, not waiting until Wednesday, and have a 3 day excursion in New York City.  He has some money to get him by, so he takes a train into the city and gets a hotel room.  He meets the mother of a student at Pencey on the train and lies to her, telling her how loved he is, when actually the other boys loathe him.  He checks into the Edmond hotel, and has a view where he can see into other people's windows at the hotel.  He sees a transvestite, and another couple spitting drinks into each other's faces, which makes him think about sex, so he calls up Faith Cavendish, a reputed prostitute whose number he got from a guy he knows.  She turns him down, as it is about 2 in the morning.  He ends up going to the Lavender Room, the bar in the hotel, and dancing with some tourists he thinks are pathetic because how excited they get over the city.  He then decides to go to Eddies night club where his older brother D.B. used to go, but leaves right after getting there because he sees one of D.B.'s ex girlfriend's and thinks that she is phony.  He ends up trying to make contact with acquaintances he has, but to no avail.  He knows a lot of people and makes a lot of contact, but has trouble making meaningful relationships with anyone.  Holden holds the idea that everyone is phony.  That he is basically the only nonphony person, and that everyone wants to be something else.
Holden spends another day calling up people he knows and meeting with them, only to have it be awkward and not at all meaningful.  He decides the only one he wants to contact is Phoebe, his 10 year old kid sister, but is afraid of doing so because his parents might find out he is in town early.  Phoebe Caulfield is one of the only people he holds in high regard other than his dead brother Allie.  He sees her youth as innocence and believes this innocence is destroyed when we grow up, and/or become phony.  He ends up meeting her in the middle of the night, sneaking into the apartment when she is asleep and his parent's aren't home.  She yells at him for getting kicked out of Pencey and he feels betrayed.  She tells him that he doesn't like anything and demands him to name one thing he likes, to which, he cannot find an answer.  He tells her about a plan to just leave and go across the country and be a mute, who just works and is mute, and eventually marries a mute.  Phoebe asks him what he wants to do and he tells her that the only thing he can think that he would want to do is be the 'catcher in the rye'.  He asks her if she knows the song "if a body catch a body coming through the rye", she says she knows the poem but it's if a body find a body.  He says he thought it was "catch a body".   He says that he just envisions a big field of rye with kids running through it and a big cliff at the end, and he was stand there to catch the kids before they fell over the cliff.  The Catcher in the Rye.  This symbolizes his desire to save the innocence of youth.  He ends up leaving to meet with an old teacher of his, Mr. Antolini.  He goes to Mr. Antolini's house and meets with him and his wife.  Mr. Antolini tries to talk Holden into accepting life and applying himself to something.  He quotes Wilhelm Stekel: "The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one."  Holden falls asleep on their couch that night, and he retires, only to wake up in the middle of the night to find Mr. Antolini rubbing his head.  He takes this as a homosexual advance, saying it was very "flitty", meaning gay.  So he rushes out and leaves telling Mr. Antolini he has to get his bags from Grand Central Station.
Holden spends the night at Grand Central Station, then sends a note to Phoebe the next day at school telling her to meet him for lunch and that he has to go.  Holden is becoming increasingly delusional.  He starts feeling very odd and sick and believes he will die every time he crosses the street.  When he meets Phoebe she has a bag packed and wants to go with him.  He tells her no, and she becomes angry when he refuses to let her.  He eventually tells her he isn't going to go, and buys her a ticket for the carrousel in the zoo, where he sits and watches her on it and begins to cry.
Holden ends the story there, refusing to tell what happened next about him getting sick, but hinting that people are worried he won't apply himself next semester.  He's apparently in a hospital out near his brother D.B. in California.  He ends by saying to be careful telling a story about everything, because you miss everyone.  He says he misses even old Stradlater and Ackley.          
Holden Caulfield is a man of mystery?  I'm forming that as a question, because I'm not sure if he is or if he really throws it all out there for us to see.  He is puzzling, nonetheless.  Aloof?  He explains a lot to us in The Catcher and the Rye, but he does so in his own vague, negative language, and he admits and omits a lot about himself as well.  He fully admits to being a great "bullshitter" and a liar.  So at times, it's quite puzzling as to whether he is bullshitting the reader with a lot that he says, or is he being honest to us.  I think it's a combination.  There's no doubt that he is a psychologically disturbed youth, but his aloofness and the book's absence of, sometimes it seems, a plot, keeps you wanting to crack the code.  There's a sort of "to save face" context to his way of speaking to us, like if someone were describing a fight to you in which they got their ass kicked. 
The Catcher in the Rye is basically story about fighting responsibility and not accepting your place in the world.  Holden Caulfield is completely lost.  He has been kicked out of numerous Prep schools for not applying himself, skipping classes, etc, and is now at Pencey Prep, having a go at it again.  And so begins the story of a 16 year old on his own for 3 days in the big city.  Holden is used to New York, though, he grew up there, but he still gets into some peculiar situations.  It seems as though he's just breaking down more and more through the whole ordeal.  It ends with him sitting in front of the carousel in Central Park watching his sister ride it.  And then he says about getting sick.  He mentioned feeling dizzy and sick and about passing out towards the end, but you don't really know what is happening.  Through the entire book you just keep reading thinking you're going to find something.  After this page I'll know, I'll crack the code!  Holden IS the code.  There really isn't an amazing point to this book.  It's just the character.  This book is proof that even though characters can be complete douches and asses, we still find an interest in them.  Because Wagner and I discussed his character, bitter and hating as it may be, many times.  And Wagner was done with Holden.  But I didn't quit, and I began to see and find humor in his story.  His negative position was actually starting to make me laugh, and I'll be god damned if I wasn't able to see a glimmer of what he meant and even understand where he was coming from at times.  The point is that all characters aren't loveable.  They all have flaws like us.  Holden was simply a confused and tormented youth, struggling to find something in this life to want to hold onto and believe in, although he is more troubled than a normal teen.  He hadn't applied himself in anything, and he doesn't even seem to enjoy or like doing anything.  And even when his younger sister gets on him about doing something with his life, he says to her, (and you find out what the title means) that the only thing he can think he would want to do, is be the catcher in the rye.  He hears a little boy on the street singing the song "when a body catch a body coming through the rye" and he decides he wants to be the person that catches the kids from falling.  The person that saves them from growing up, in a manner of speaking.  
I actually begin to like him more and more AND less and less as the book progresses.  He obviously has anger issues and latent feelings about his brother, Allie, dying.  He admits that he punched the windows out of the garage the day his brother died and then he broke his hand on the car window.  But he also says he doesn't blame his parents for wanting to have him psychoanalyzed for it, and he admits it was a dumb thing to do.  He's very eager to point out his short comings or state facts about himself that he admits aren't very friendly or proper, but is it the truth or is it to lull us into a false sense of security?  I like how he says about having to "be in the mood" to do something.  I find that an interesting concept, one that you can't help but support.  I find that some things, you do have to be in the mood for.  But his reasoning for some things is just that he wasn't in the mood to say this or to do that.  He was thinking these things in his head, but lacks the ability to act them out.
 And his criticism on human kind is astonishing, but nonetheless, not always overly critical or evil.  He speaks very fondly of a lot of people.  But others he speaks of as complete bastards.  He bitches and gripes a lot.  But is it accurate?  I can't say that I disagree with his claim that a lot of people are "phony", but he does seem to have a fascination with phoniness and phony things.  Fake.  He hates fake things.  But is he himself fake?  In a way, he is what he hates, because he is an admitted liar, and he admits he can go on and on and tells isn't that being as "phony" as someone that pastes on a fake smile or throws out a loud and laden with phony "How aaaaaaare you?"  He is also continuously feeling betrayed in the book.  He thinks everyone betrays him.  And he is obsessed with innocence, i.e. being the Catcher in the Rye, saving the children, saving youth.  Phoniness, betrayal, and innocence are all definite themes in this book.  He's very angst ridden and angry, but lost in the same way, but he really does seem to have no direction at all.  But he is only 16 isn't he?  It makes me wonder, aren't MOST 16 year old boys a little of like this? Although, he is not a typical teenager. He is also obsessed and searching for intellectual conversation and focuses on how a lot of people are "morons" and yet, what intellectual conversation or anything has he had?  He hates school, but English is his best subject.  His flaw is that is thinks he is not phony, when actually; you are phony if you are a liar.  And that he is always searching for intellectual conversation, when how much can he really offer an intellect?  He just wants to be the Catcher in the Rye.   He's running from maturity.  He wants to preserve the youth of children, because he is incapable of accepting the end of it, incapable of accepting growth.  He is incapable of accepting responsibility and commitment.  He is incapable.  I wonder if he will apply himself next semester or if he will remain the Catcher in the Rye? 
See, Wagner, there WAS a point to it.  Take that! :P