Walking in the Woods

A Walk in the Woods CoverIf you have any outdoorsy spark within you at all, then certain books are bound to elevate that spark to genuine obsession. A Walk in the Woods did that for me in July.

The stupid book made me want to drop everything, buy a backpack, and go hit the ~2,800-mile-long-trail posthaste. Nevermind the fact that I’m 26 weeks pregnant with twins, and walking a single mile feels like a feat of superhuman strength and stamina.

Reading Bryson’s account of through-hiking the trail reminded me of hiking in and around the Blue Ridge Mountains with my best friend in college–spending Saturdays in the woods, far enough from classrooms and homework that they couldn’t quite touch us, logging mile after mile and then dragging ourselves to Panera afterwards for soup and sandwiches.

Anyway, the whole reading-and-reminiscing thing sparked a conversation with the hubster, who started an AT through hike with a friend several years ago. Sadly, they couldn’t finish because said friend injured his ankle. The hubster’s dream lives on, and mine remains on my bucket list–the same place it’s been for the past four or five years.

Knowing that about 90 miles of the Appalachian Trail runs through western Massachusetts, we decided to look up volunteer opportunities at the trail conservancy in this area. A few days later, Manny informed me that he had signed both of us up to help rebuild a bog bridge on a section of trail an hour and a half away by car + 1/2 mile by foot.

I protested on the basis of exhaustion and general aches and pains. I told him he might end up carrying me back up the trail. And then I went with him anyway.

We met a few scruffy-looking men who could have been 45 or 80. Apparently one was a ridge runner whose full-time job is hiking the AT from one end of Mass. to another to keep an eye on the trail, rumors of bears, fallen trees, and the like. They handed us some wood to carry down the trail, and down we went.

The weather was perfect–mid 70’s, breezy, clear sunshine and cotton candy clouds. I think I waddled the half-mile to the bog bridge and back half a dozen times over the course of the day, alternately carrying a piece of wood, a box of nails, or a hammer.

Appalachian Trail in MassachusettsI will note that the aches in my back and hips and the fatigue of walking, even while carrying lumber and tools, pretty much disappeared as long as I was out there walking in the woods (they all came back in full force later, sadly).

The hubster and I were also elected to walk another mile up the trail in the opposite direction to post a “Beware of Bear” sign near a shelter where a bear had decided to rob some unfortunate hiker of his entire food bag the week before. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the fuzzy fellow, but no such luck.

But back to the book. If you don’t want to come away from A Walk in the Woods with a compulsion to, well, go for a walk in the woods, probably don’t pick it up in the first place–even though they are making it into a movie next year.

The book itself is hilariously uncouth, captures an incredibly relatable ambivalent love-hate relationship with the trail, and is laugh-out-loud funny. I spewed the tea I was drinking dangerously close to the pages more than once because a particularly entertaining line caught me off-guard. Because of this, I’m calling it the Funny Book on my 2015 Reading List.

Because the spark of obsession was lit, I followed that read with Hiking Through, another AT book, this one from Manny’s section of the home library. It’s an autobiographical account of a former Mennonite hiking the trail after losing his wife to cancer. I respect this guy more than Bryson, but he’s not a writer, and his attempts at both poetry and humor fell rather flat. Still, it was worth the few hours it took to read it. I’m thinking these might lead to a whole series of AT-related reading.

I guess this is all to say that if one day in the not-so-distant future, you read here that the hubster and I are quitting life to take two kids and a dog on a six-month-long walk in the woods, you shouldn’t be terribly surprised.

Go Set a Watchman won’t ever be a classic, but I love it anyway.

Go Set a Watchman Cover

I’m just going to be the odd man out that defends this book as totally worth reading.

Fact: Go Set a Watchman was never intended to be a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. Watchman was written first, and Lee’s publisher suggested that the back story would be a more viable read.

Fact: The Atticus of Watchman is not the same as the Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird. You could say he changed (for the worse?) with age and time, but it makes more sense to acknowledge that Watchman Atticus wasn’t the same man at all. He’s a rewrite, a different story, based on the assumption that Watchman would never be published.

Fact: The plot isn’t primarily about race, and if you start reading it thinking it’s all about race, it’ll infuriate you. Though race is a key element, the plot (and yes, I will argue there is indeed a plot, though many reviewers have rather vehemently said otherwise) is about Scout returning home after years on her own and dealing with the suffocating feeling that she never really knew the people she loved and trusted.

Fact: For some reason, I couldn’t put this book down. I read it through in one day.

I know that many readers who read Watchman walked away disappointed (inevitable for a sequel) and disgusted (inevitable in light of an honorable protagonist who looks at segregation as anything but clear-cut). In it, Atticus–a character we’ve long loved and respected–plays down the KKK and holds some fairly segregationalist views.

But this is a different Atticus. And though today’s America tends to make everything all about race and injustice, the story isn’t about race or injustice. It’s about a little girl who idolizes her father and thinks at least somewhat highly of most residents of her hometown. And when she returns as an adult, it all looks heartbreakingly different.

You can argue that’s not enough of a plot to spin a novel, and Lee’s publisher would have agreed–at least the first time around. That’s why we have Mockingbird. But novels have been spun on far less.

For what it’s worth, I loved seeing the way Lee made the story evolve. It’s a look into an author’s mind. What would we find if we could go back and read the stories Dickens discarded? We might not see the same Dickens we’ve been studying for years, but there might be a controversial gem in there somewhere that gives insight into the way a great writer thought.

And that’s what Watchman is–a controversial, insight-giving gem. Of course, most people don’t pick up a novel for its academic insight. And on its own, Watchman would never have been a bestseller. If it had been published in 1960, it would have faded into oblivion by now. As a standalone novel, it’s in dire need of a good editor. It will never attain classic status in the mainstream literary canon.

But Watchman strays from contemporary norms and controversies and deals instead with the struggle of moral betrayal and growing up as a very real, heartbreaking issue. Today’s audience sees those issues as worthy only of an eye-roll or addendum, not a novel. Watchman looks at race relations as a complex issue, with insight that goes deeper than the oversimplified everyone-was-just-unenlightened attitude we tend to cop about the South today.

We’d do well to look past the controversy (and our own assumptions) and into the human truth of this story.

This one is going to fall firmly into the 2015 reading list category as “Book with Bad Reviews,” but I certainly don’t regret the few hours I spent on it.

Rereading, and an Uncomfortable Bookstore Experience

To Kill a Mockingbird Cover It was almost closing time and I was browsing the “Favorite Bestsellers” rack at Barnes & Noble, wondering whose favorites could have possibly made it onto that shelf, when an older teenaged guy walked up. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

I glanced up from the back cover of The Girl on the Train and squinted at him.

A thick lock of black hair fell in front of his left eye and a thick swirl of improbable, artfully-cut sideburn approached his right. I almost asked him how he could stand to blink with that much fur approaching his line of sight, because that’s about how socially appropriate I’ve felt lately.

“Have you ever, uhm, like, picked up a book, and just couldn’t put it down?”

“Yes, that’s happened to me a time or two.”

He was so earnest and looked truly desperate for something, anything, to keep his mind occupied before Barnes & Noble kicked him out.

“Do you remember any of the titles?”

And then my mind went blank. I had nothing for him. There’s the junk reading I’ve been doing recently, but I couldn’t bring myself to recommend Cassandra Clare to that kid. And my (possibly unreasonable) judgment was that he wouldn’t appreciate any Dickens or To Kill a Mockingbird recommendations. And… what else was there?

Of all the books I’ve devoured and loved, I couldn’t figure out what to tell the kid. I asked him which genres he liked, to which he responded (most unhelpfully) that he liked them all fairly equally. Blah. Either the kid was truly desperate for a page-turner, or he was doing one of those freshman-psych social experiments in which you have to survey random people, and I was the failed experiment. He wasn’t quite awkward enough for that, though.

I need to make a list, I thought frantically. How can I not have an answer to this question? It SHOULDN’T BE THAT HARD. 

The thought made me think I need to revisit some of my favorites and reevaluate them. I did recently break my general practice of NOT rereading books to reread To Kill a Mockingbird. While reading it, it struck me that it’s a different book than I thought it was the first time around.

Many of the times I’ve tried to revisit a childhood book, I’ve been disappointed. Narnia doesn’t have quite the same magic on a second read-through as an adult when you already know what happens. It still has magic, but the magic has changed as much as I have. And it takes a special kind of mood to want to deal with that.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a different book at my ripe old 24 years (hah) than it was at 18. Scout is wiser now, less like an annoying kid. Atticus is nobler. I wanted to cry for Tom Robinson, and I wanted to cry even more for his wife and kids. I wanted to walk through the streets of Maycomb, which suddenly seemed like it must still exist somewhere in Alabama as the book describes, complete with its flying-buttressed mini-jail.

I wanted to rail at Atticus’s ridiculous tolerance of injustice against himself and his proclivity to walk in the shoes all the prejudiced, inexcusably self-serving people of the county–as much I wanted to rail at the challenging fact that he’s terribly, hopelessly right.

In a conversation with his daughter, Scout:

“You aren’t really a nigger-lover, then, are you?”

“I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody… I’m hard put, sometimes—baby, it’s never an insult to be called what somebody thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”

My 18-year-old self would have had something virulent to say about the names certain Maycomb citizens called Atticus, as well as his doormat-esque attitude. My 24-year-old self is confronted with the fact that Atticus is terribly, unarguably, biblically right. And realizes that ten years from now, To Kill a Mockingbird will be a different book yet.

So, rereading. Not as much for artistry (though there is that) as for wisdom.

I don’t think I’d gain much by rereading anything Cassandra Clare wrote, which is probably one of the reasons (along with acute literary shame) that I hesitated to recommend The Mortal Instruments to my furry bookstore friend. But I could stand to reread Bleak HouseAnd Vanity Fair, which I’m sure would mean something different now than it did when I was 14 and enamored with Thackeray’s turn of phrase.

So I guess I need to make a list of page-turners worth rereading, and then actually reread them. Later, after I finish Go Set a Watchman

Writing hypocrisy.

Yesterday, I was sitting in my non-air-conditioned Massachusetts home, holding a glass of iced water to my forehead, sweating, and writing an article. The topic?  Keeping your house cool in the summertime–without air conditioning. My client wanted suggestions like “Use fans! Open your windows for ventilation! Close your curtains against the heat of the day!” …and I’m sitting there writing about how wonderful those options are, how you can totally make a home comfortable without central air, while taking more clothes off and cursing my home’s failure to keep the house under ninety-something degrees.

Five years of copywriting has taught me just how ridiculous the world of content marketing can be.

When I was in college, I succumbed to the same crime of inconsistency. I wrote for the university paper, and one week I’d been assigned an article on time management and procrastination–particularly, how to complete projects well within deadlines. I had a week to write the article, but I ended up drafting it (with lots of excellent advice, I might add) half an hour before it was due.

I mean, what was I supposed to do? Go to my editor and tell her that I was sorry but due to personal failure, hypocrisy, and a priority system that put that paper near the bottom of my list, I couldn’t turn the stupid article in at all?

The worst part was being rewarded for such last-minute work. As a student, I often received feedback (from notoriously stringent writing professors) praising my hard work and attention to detail on the very papers I’d written between 3 and 4am the day before they were due. Too often, the stuff I actually spent hours researching, writing, and rewriting garnered a Nice try, but I’ve seen you do better.

How do you universalize an experience like that? Just stop trying? For me, the solution fell somewhere along the lines of taking the advice and knowledge of professors and then writing to my satisfaction, not to theirs. I got better grades that way (and, I daresay, wrote better stuff) but it took most of my college career to figure out that secret.

And yet. Some days I have no idea what I’m satisfied with when it comes to writing, because when I’m particularly tired, ANYTHING looks good. And when I’m particularly energetic, nothing even seems adequate. And when I’m uncomfortably hot, all I care about is finding an AC.

Such is life.

In case you were wondering.

Twin Boys I should knit a few little baby socks, I thought. It’ll be fun, I thought.

Then I convinced myself to wait until the 20-week ultrasound, at which I would find out the genders of the papooses. After all, I have a tendency to make little-girl things, and how sad would it be to expend all that effort on little Mary Janes if I ended up with boys?

I suppose it’s a good thing I waited to pick up the needles.

After the ultrasound, at which the doctor assured us it was pretty unmistakable that there were two little men in there, I thought, I’ll just knit two pairs of little blue socks and post the picture to Facebook and that’ll answer ALL the questions. Except I underestimated my own OCD and the time it would take to knit four teensy socks. I made the mistake of posting something about the ultrasound and healthy babies to Facebook, then took four days to knit those ridiculous little blue socks and make the information public.

As soon as I indicated on Facebook that my anatomy scan had gone well, my inbox was flooded with messages. It suddenly seemed like everyone had a very driving interest in finding out the genders of my unborn children. Some resorting to guessing or guilting, reminding me they had every right to know before the Facebook world at large. Others hinted at wanting “news” in so many circles that it made my head spin.

Shameless pregnancy selfie.

Shameless pregnancy selfie.

I don’t understand this at. all. Don’t get me wrong–I don’t mind the curiosity. I’m not irritated. It’s been incredibly entertaining. But it baffles me.

Perhaps because I’ve never cared been really invested in finding out whether my friends and family were having boys or girls–particularly early in their pregnancies. I will love those kiddos to death after they’re born. But at 20 weeks, I’m not going to be knocking you over for news.

Does that make me a terrible person?

If you’re the kind of person who’s been holding his or her breath waiting for this information, here it is. If, like me, you really don’t care much, my feelings won’t be hurt. At all. I totally get it.

And if I offended you by depriving you of this news for four long days, then… I’m not sure what to say. I’m sorry? Ish?

Neil Gaiman …and 19 Weeks Pregnant

American Gods CoverI thought I liked Neil Gaiman, and then I tried to read American Gods.

Actually, I might blame the previous month of blogging silence on the psychological trauma that constituted the first two hundred pages of that book.

I tried. Wanted to love it. Realized that every time I sat down, ostensibly to read and relax, I felt a tension headache taking form and a slight, but unmistakeable, wave of nausea.

Was Shadow supposed to be a dimensionless, remarkably boring character? Was the mishmash of mythology intended to be more irritating than it was interesting? What’s with the hallucinogenic-ish rabbit trails thrown in for free?

I’m guessing it makes more sense if you actually finish the thing, but really, you couldn’t pay me to go there again. Well, I guess you could pay me. But the price would be steep.

This ridiculousness makes Samuel Beckett’s style look eminently reasonable, believable, and optimistic.

Giving myself permission to give up on that psychedelic road trip was akin to the guilty pleasure of ordering a venti Frappuccino before breakfast. Sooo ridiculously good.

Maybe I’m just not cut out for the whole contemporary literature thing. That’s actually not unlikely.

Twin Pregnancy 19 Weeks Or maybe it’s hormones. This week, I’m 19 weeks pregnant with twins, more or less halfway through this crazy pregnancy.

One day, I felt like I could pretty much pass for a disproportionate, somewhat overweight person. The very next morning, my belly was preceding me everywhere, announcing to the world that I’m indeed expecting.

It’s getting hard to tie my shoes, roll over at night, and load the bottom shelf of the dishwasher. And I believe my toenail-painting days are over. Cue the wealth of well-meaning comments everywhere I go.

My favorite question: “Do you know what you’re having yet?! Are you going to find out?”

Um, human babies? I hope?

Next week’s ultrasound should give us the much-anticipated gender answer. Though I still don’t understand why relative strangers care so much. I mean, I’m not holding my breath to find out whether distant relatives and strangers in the grocery store are having boys or girls.

Next favorite question: “Wouldn’t it be AMAZING if you had one boy and one girl?”

I think it would be pretty awesome if I had two healthy babies. That would be miracle enough for me. Though I must admit, I’m hoping for at least one girl.

If I said every snarky thing that came to mind these days, I’d be well on my way to making the entire population of Springfield, MA hate my pregnant guts.

The poor hubster.

One extra rant that hits particularly close to home this morning: The baristas at my local Starbucks have proven they are more than slightly ignorant about the contents of a London Fog. Isn’t this relatively common coffee shop knowledge? Clearly not. Because the unsweetened fruity (!) tea-ish thingy I got last time I ordered one didn’t even come close to the right ball park.

I can’t believe I’m reading this nonsense.

City of Bones CoverI did it. I ventured into the shady world of popular young adult fiction.

I don’t usually read YA stuff. Or sci-fi-ish stuff, unless the husband somehow talks me into it. I guess this falls more into the realm of fantasy?

If anyone recommended these books to me with any seriousness, I very well might have rolled my eyes inwardly and made a mental note to forever after question their taste.

But once I read the first book in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series–City of Bones–I was hooked. Not because there’s anything particularly amazing about the books. As a matter of fact, I wanted to hate the series and rail against its inconsistencies and its hopelessly twisted agnostic worldview and its typical young-adultish melodrama.

Digression: One Goodreads viewer actually wrote that she wants to believe this world exists. What kind of messed up person wants to live in a world where the only thing keeping us ordinary humans from the whims of demons is a team of narcissistic dagger-wielding teenagers and a group of even less-trustworthy adults who can’t get their act together?

Regardless. Instead of embracing my inner critic, I just picked up the next one. And then the next. Repeat like 7x.

They’re unlimited on Oyster, so why not? And why take the effort to get to know a whole new set of characters in a book I may or may not like when I’m already addicted to these and have. to. know. what happens to them next?

I guess Cassandra Clare must have done something right.

I’m claiming these as the trilogy on my 2015 reading list, since I have to claim it as something and technically the entire series is made up of three trilogies. I’m dismissing the critic in me, because I needed some junk food reading in my life, and all my pregnant self wants to do is sit on the sofa and do nothing, and for the month of May, this has been my nothing.

I feel like I should read War and Peace and then Moby Dick back-to-back next to make up for this indiscretion. And to clear my mind of nonsense like demon hunters with superhuman powers and angels with iridescent wings.