Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill BrysonA Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Rob McQuay
Published by Broadway Books ISBN: 0767902521
on May 4, 1999
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 9 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

Back in America after twenty years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. The AT offers an astonishing landscape of silent forests and sparkling lakes—and to a writer with the comic genius of Bill Bryson, it also provides endless opportunities to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings. For a start, there's the gloriously out-of-shape Stephen Katz, a buddy from Iowa along for the walk. Despite Katz's overwhelming desire to find cozy restaurants, he and Bryson eventually settle into their stride, and while on the trail they meet a bizarre assortment of hilarious characters. But A Walk in the Woods is more than just a laugh-out-loud hike. Bryson's acute eye is a wise witness to this beautiful but fragile trail, and as he tells its fascinating history, he makes a moving plea for the conservation of America's last great wilderness. An adventure, a comedy, and a celebration, A Walk in the Woods has become a modern classic of travel literature.

After finishing and enjoying Bill Bryson’s book about traveling Australia, In a Sunburned Country, I wanted to read A Walk in the Woods. I have taken up walking myself, and while I harbor no desire to walk the Appalachian Trail, I understand the joy a good walk can bring. This book really brings together a few different elements. On one level, it’s the history and ecology of the AT. It’s also a travelogue, which I expected after reading In a Sunburned Country. However, what I didn’t expect (not having read reviews) was that this would be a buddy story. Bryson is accompanied on his journey—his old friend Stephen Katz joins Bryson’s hike and threatens to walk away with the whole narrative. I’d love to know Katz’s reasons for wanting to walk the AT with Bill Bryson, but I’m glad he went.

My largest problem with the book was the narrator wasn’t Bryson. He also mispronounced a few proper nouns, which always bothers me. There are more than a few Deliverance references meant to be jokes, as well. That old stereotype wears very thin after a while, but I felt Bryson was attempting to rationalize some of his anxiety; I’m not sure to what extent he really believes those stereotypes.

This book was particularly fun to listen to as I walked, and I especially enjoyed hearing about some of the places I was more familiar with—the segment on Mount Greylock was interesting to me, as I have visited it and remember seeing everything he described. I imagine it would be fun to read this book while hiking the AT. I learned a great deal about the AT, and I also learned more about ecological concerns facing conservationists today.

five-stars

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
Narrator: Laurence Fishburne
Published by Audible Studios on September 10, 2020
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Length: 16 hours and 52 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

One of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Experience a bold take on this classic autobiography as it’s performed by Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

In this searing classic autobiography, originally published in 1965, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and Black empowerment activist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Human Rights movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American dream and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-White citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the African American experience and America as a whole.

©1965 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabazz (P)2020 Audible, Inc.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I had been meaning for years—perhaps as long as a decade. I admit I was a bit daunted by the length, and I had only seen the mass-market paperback version with tiny print. I can’t really read mass-market paperbacks anymore. I’m sure there were other, more accessible versions available, but for whatever reason, I never crossed paths with one. I was thrilled to discover this new audio recording narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne.

Malcolm X led a fascinating life. I was really intrigued by his stint in prison and the education he was able to obtain while incarcerated (check out this list of books he mentions he read while in prison). He clearly repudiated his life before prison in the book, in spite of the fact that one might argue that Malcolm X had been dealt a particularly difficult hand: not only was he essentially an orphan as a teenager when his father was killed and his mother was hospitalized, but he was also brought up in a racist society that devalued his intellect and talents. He describes telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up only to be discouraged from pursuing that career by this racist teacher who insisted, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—–. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n—–.” This from a teacher Malcolm X admired, too. Honestly, after reading this book, the first thing I thought is that Malcolm X would have made an excellent lawyer. He knew how to craft an argument, and he had a fairly stunning intellect.

One area where I would push back against Malcolm X is his misogynoir. That might not be the right term. I don’t think he hated women. I don’t think he respected them very much, either, however, and he definitely viewed them as inferior. One might point to his religion, but I’m not sure it’s entirely related to Islam because he seemed to feel that way before he converted as well (and Islam is not the only patriarchal religion—I hear many of the same anti-woman ideas from many corners). It does not follow that just because one knows and understands what it is like to be part of an oppressed group that one naturally empathizes with other oppressed groups, and I would argue this is true of Malcolm X. The most troubling argument he makes is that societies crumble when their women have what he’d describe as loose morals. He describes a case study of “Westernized” women in Lebanon versus women in Saudi Arabia (whom he deemed more properly in their place), and he makes a pretty poor case if you ask me.

It was disheartening to read of Malcolm X’s betrayal by the Nation of Islam, an organization he had done so much to promote. It was also chilling to read Malcolm X’s insistence that he expected to die by violence. One thing that struck me especially hard was that Malcolm X and my grandfather were born in the same month and year. You couldn’t have identified two more different people if you had tried. Their lives and experiences in society couldn’t have been further apart. Perhaps my favorite passage of the Autobiography was Malcolm X’s description of improving his reading comprehension by copying out the dictionary.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

Malcolm X’s ideas have been so widely influential. Modern anti-racist, anti-bias movements owe much to Malcolm X’s thought. I have heard so much about Malcolm X, much of it controversial, fear-mongering lies, unfortunately, and I felt it was important to read his story for myself. For example, many people believe Malcolm X to be biased against White people, and while this was true (and not without good cause, I might add), he later changed these views after experiencing the Hajj and meeting fellow Muslim pilgrims who were White. He viewed Islam as a unifying force. Malcolm X wrestled honestly with his life in this memoir. This is an important book that I think many people should read in order to better understand our American society.

five-stars

Review: Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Review: Born to Run, Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Narrator: Bruce Springsteen
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1508224234
on December 6, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Length: 18 hours and 12 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

“Writing about yourself is a funny business… But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” —Bruce Springsteen, from the pages of Born to Run

In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show. The experience was so exhilarating that Bruce decided to write about it. That’s how this extraordinary autobiography began.

Over the past seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to these pages the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs.

He describes growing up Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey, amid the poetry, danger, and darkness that fueled his imagination, leading up to the moment he refers to as “The Big Bang”: seeing Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He vividly recounts his relentless drive to become a musician, his early days as a bar band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. With disarming candor, he also tells for the first time the story of the personal struggles that inspired his best work, and shows us why the song “Born to Run” reveals more than we previously realized.

Born to Run will be revelatory for anyone who has ever enjoyed Bruce Springsteen, but this book is much more than a legendary rock star’s memoir. This is a book for workers and dreamers, parents and children, lovers and loners, artists, freaks, or anyone who has ever wanted to be baptized in the holy river of rock and roll.

Rarely has a performer told his own story with such force and sweep. Like many of his songs (“Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Rising,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” to name just a few), Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography is written with the lyricism of a singular songwriter and the wisdom of a man who has thought deeply about his experiences.

I’m really behind on writing reviews. I actually finished listening to this book some time back, and if you choose to read it, let me highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Springsteen himself. Here’s a teaser, courtesy PBS.

 

This memoir is a master class in the genre. In fact, I plan to order a paper copy of it so that I can use it in teaching narrative writing. It’s that good. In fact, it’s the best memoir I’ve read. I don’t say that lightly either, as I have read quite a few.

What makes this particular memoir a standout is its unflinching honesty and its poetic sensibility. Though we know Bruce Springsteen is a great songwriter, that kind of writing talent doesn’t always translate to other forms. I am a bit embarrassed to say how surprised I was that Springsteen’s memoir was so well-written.

I picked this up on Audible using one of my credits a long time ago, and I decided to listen to it at long last after enjoying Warren Zanes’s biography of Tom Petty so much. I like Bruce Springsteen’s music, but I must confess I was not what I’d call a fan. I would never change the station on one of his songs, but I also didn’t own a complete album, and the only album I had listened to in its entirety before reading this book was Born in the USA—my mom had that one when I was a kid. To be fair, I listened to that album a lot. One thing I tried to do as I read this book was go back and educate myself about Springsteen’s music, and holy hell is he amazing. I can’t believe I never listened to Born to Run all the way through. I have to say, “Jungleland” is probably my favorite of his songs.

Springsteen is also a voracious reader, and it shows in the allusions he makes to other books in the memoir itself. As an English teacher, catching those references was a real Easter-egg type of pleasant surprise. I often tell my students that if they want to be better writers, they need to read more. They need to observe what great writers do, what moves they make in their writing. Clearly, Springsteen understands the importance of reading for his writing, but I sense he just enjoys reading for its own sake.

Bruce Springsteen Writing
Bruce Springsteen Writing by Pamela Springsteen, the artist’s sister

When I reached the point in the memoir when Springsteen discussed the death of Clarence Clemons, I admit I cried a little, in spite of knowing very little about Clemons prior to reading this book. Springsteen’s ache over the loss of his friend and collaborator (and sometime co-conspirator) is palpable in his reading. I appreciated Springsteen’s frankness about his struggles with depression as well. It’s tragic that mental illness carries such a stigma, which prevents people from getting help. Springsteen talks about this stigma as well.

I highly recommend this wonderful memoir to anyone, especially music fans. If you are not a fan of Springsteen’s before you read, you will still enjoy this book—and you will probably be a fan afterward. I’ll close out with a playlist of my favorite Springsteen tracks, more or less in order.

five-stars

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian Black

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian BlackA Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN: 1616209119
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

“Raw, intimate, and true . . . A Better Man cracked me wide open, and it’s a template for the conversation we need to be having with our boys.”Peggy Orenstein, bestselling author of Boys & Sex

A poignant look at boyhood, in the form of a heartfelt letter from comedian Michael Ian Black to his teenage son before he leaves for college, and a radical plea for rethinking masculinity and teaching young men to give and receive love.

In a world in which the word masculinity now often goes hand in hand with toxic, comedian, actor, and father Michael Ian Black offers up a way forward for boys, men, and anyone who loves them. Part memoir, part advice book, and written as a heartfelt letter to his college-bound son, A Better Man reveals Black’s own complicated relationship with his father, explores the damage and rising violence caused by the expectations placed on boys to “man up,” and searches for the best way to help young men be part of the solution, not the problem. “If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability,” he writes, “how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness?”

Honest, funny, and hopeful, Black skillfully navigates the complex gender issues of our time and delivers a poignant answer to an urgent question: How can we be, and raise, better men? 

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This is an important book for our current moment. I found it helpful to understand the messages men receive about how to be “correctly” masculine, and I think we can lay many of our current societal problems at the feet of these dangerous messages. Readers looking for Black’s characteristic humor will find the subtitle accurate: the book is mostly serious, and I really appreciated the vulnerability and honesty of its seriousness. The book serves as a contemplative memoir, a poignant letter of love and advice, and a meditation on our world. I walked away from it feeling that Michael Ian Black is a good husband, father, and most of all, a good man.

I recommend this book most highly to men, but I learned a great deal from it, too. Most importantly, it gave me an understanding. I don’t believe all men are alike, and I don’t believe they are all horrible, but I freely admit I was reaching a point of despair over the ability of men—White men—to recognize their privilege and work on unlearning some of the most damaging messages they have received. If I had to pick a moment when this feeling started to take shape, it was when Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed. I recognized that man. I am pretty sure I went to high school and college with a lot of guys like him. And I was pretty sure Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth. I was also pretty sure that Kavanaugh thought he was telling the truth, too. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but I think he felt entitled to do as he pleased, and I think he felt pressured to prove his masculinity through sexual conquest, and I think a lot of the boys in his friend group were doing the same things, which normalized and maybe even celebrated treating women as less than people, only useful as sexual objects. Because I remember what it was like to be a girl in the era in which Kavanaugh allegedly raped Blasey Ford. Black devotes a whole chapter to consent, and he explains the messages both girls and boys receive about consent and how they warp our ability to communicate sexual desire.

I admit things seem hopeless right now. We have a racist, misogynist person in the White House. He operates out of the most toxic and dangerous aspects of masculinity. Our civil rights champion, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has completely upended our lives and taken the lives of a number most of us can’t fathom. The ending isn’t in sight. We are in the darkest part of the tunnel, or maybe the belly of the whale, and it is hard not to be resigned to despair. This book gave me a little bit of hope. It’s going to take some backbreaking work, but I’m comforted to know people like Michael Ian Black are doing their part for us.

five-stars

Review: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain

Review: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony BourdainKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
Published by Ecco/Harper Perennial ISBN: 0060899220
on January 9, 2007
Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir, Cooking
Pages: 312
Format: Paperback
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three-half-stars

A deliciously funny, delectably shocking banquet of wild-but-true tales of life in the culinary trade from Chef Anthony Bourdain, laying out his more than a quarter-century of drugs, sex, and haute cuisine—now with all-new, never-before-published material.

New York Chef Tony Bourdain gives away secrets of the trade in his wickedly funny, inspiring memoir/expose. Kitchen Confidential reveals what Bourdain calls "twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine."

I’ve watched Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown. I’ve never seen an episode I didn’t find interesting or educational, never mind entertaining, but I’m not a religious watcher, and I am not sure whether or not to call myself a fan. It was sad to hear about his death last year. I supposed that’s what made me finally decide to read his infamous memoir, Kitchen Confidential. I liked the book, and parts of it were really great. It was a bit overlong for me, but if you ask me to point to what he could have cut out, I’m not sure how to answer. The misogyny of the typical 1970s or 1980s (even 1990s) kitchen was hard to read, and it’s a major reason this book doesn’t crack four stars for me. I don’t get the sense that Anthony Bourdain himself was a terrible misogynist, but I don’t get the sense either that he has always been exactly respectful of women, nor that he has been a good ally for women experiencing sexism in restaurant kitchens. He said as much in a Medium post, in which he takes ownership of the role he has played in perpetuating this cycle:

To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.

He wrote that post in response to hearing allegations of Mario Batali’s and Ken Friedman’s sexual misconduct. Honestly, the kitchens he describes in the book sound more like pubescent locker rooms than anything else, though the afterword suggests that only a few years after the book’s publication, much had changed in restaurant kitchens. I imagine the foodie revolution, if you want to call it that, contributed to these changes.

Bourdain has a strong writing voice, and at times it’s entertaining, while at other times, it’s pretty self-important and grating. My favorite parts of the book include the chapter in which Bourdain describes what you really need in order to cook like a chef, “How to Cook Like the Pros.” The first chapter in which Bourdain travels to France with his parents and starts trying more adventurous foods for the first time, “Food is Good,” serves as a great introduction to the book. His description of his first trip to Tokyo in “Mission to Tokyo,” in which you can see the seeds for Parts Unknown being sewn, also stands out for its gorgeous descriptions of the food and the city. Bourdain has always struck me because he would literally try anything once, and it’s clear this adventurous streak was born on that trip to France when he tried vichyssoise and oysters for the first time. Bourdain’s portraits of some of the eccentrics with whom he’s worked are somewhat entertaining, but also somewhat terrifying. Maybe one shouldn’t think too hard about who is preparing one’s food?

Anthony Bourdain was clearly an interesting person. I appreciated the fact that Bourdain was not a food snob. His appreciation for food and the people who prepare it is clear. He seems like a person who loved to learn and was always willing to open himself to new experiences. I wish he’d opened himself up a bit more, at least before he became a celebrity, to learning from and with women.

three-half-stars

Review: Born a Crime, Trevor Noah

Review: Born a Crime, Trevor NoahBorn A Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
Narrator: Trevor Noah
ISBN: 1473635306
on November 15, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Format: Audio
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five-stars

The compelling, inspiring, (often comic) coming-of-age story of Trevor Noah, set during the twilight of apartheid and the tumultuous days of freedom that followed.

One of the comedy world's brightest new voices, Trevor Noah is a light-footed but sharp-minded observer of the absurdities of politics, race, and identity, sharing jokes and insights drawn from the wealth of experience acquired in his relatively young life. As host of the US hit show The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, he provides viewers around the globe with their nightly dose of biting satire, but here Noah turns his focus inward, giving readers a deeply personal, heartfelt and humorous look at the world that shaped him.

Noah was born a crime, son of a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother, at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents' indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the first years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, take him away.

A collection of eighteen personal stories, Born a Crime tells the story of a mischievous young boy growing into a restless young man as he struggles to find his place in a world where he was never supposed to exist. Born a Crime is equally the story of that young man's fearless, rebellious and fervently religious mother—a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that ultimately threatens her own life.

Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Noah illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and an unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a personal portrait of an unlikely childhood in a dangerous time, as moving and unforgettable as the very best memoirs and as funny as Noah's own hilarious stand-up. Born a Crime is a must read.

A colleague recommended that I read this book, though it had been sort of on the periphery of my radar for some time, as I enjoy Trevor Noah on The Daily Show and had heard good things about his memoir. My colleague said that listening to the audiobook was especially a treat, and my advice is that if you do read this book, do yourself a favor and let Trevor Noah read it to you. He is an incredible narrator, and hearing the memoir in his own words definitely added to my enjoyment of the book.

Trevor Noah had one heck of a childhood. He comes across as resourceful, clever, and funny, but it’s clear that he learned all of these attributes from his mother, Patricia, who emerges in many ways as the real hero of Trevor Noah’s memoir. I dare you to read this book and not cry at the very end. She is an incredibly strong woman, and Noah’s love for her shines through the entire book.

Moments of the book will have you laughing out loud, while others will make you cry. Born a Crime is a fantastic memoir, gripping and engaging from start to finish. You will definitely walk away from it with admiration for Trevor Noah’s strength… and his mother’s.

I’m counting this book for January’s motif in the Monthly Motif Challenge: New to You Author. I think this is Trevor Noah’s only book; I haven’t read anything he’s written before.

five-stars