“A Walk in the Woods”

Bryson, Bill.  A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail.  New York: Anchor., 2006.  Print.

Borrowed from The University of Iowa Main Library.

Read between October 6-13, 2012.

Four and a half out of five stars.

This week’s title, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail” is by one of my all time favorite authors and native Iowan, Bill Bryson.  Upon returning to the United States after living in England for twenty years, Bryson and his family settled in New Hampshire, where one day he came upon a path in the woods.  But this was not just any path, this was the 2,184 mile long Appalachian Trail, known to hikers as simply, “The AT”.  Bryson, who dabbled with the role of amateur hiker in England, decides one day that he is going to hike the trail in its entirety, partially in an attempt to “get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth”.  He (unsuccessfully) tries to recruit friends, colleagues, and  family members to join him on his journey walking from Georgia to Maine.  Finally, only a few days before he’s set to depart, a long lost friend (whom some readers may remember from another Bryson book, “Neither Here Nor There”), Stephen Katz calls and wants to walk along.  What ensues is an inspiring, humbling, occasionally depressing, but mostly hilarious memoir of Katz and Bryson’s “Walk in the Woods”.

Readers familiar with Bryson’s work will recognize the leisurely pace, self-deprecating humor, and personal anecdotes that the author is known for.  While his intent is mainly to entertain, Bryson also intersperses educational factoids about everything from the history of the AT and its founders to the National Parks Service’s many flaws, the idiosyncrasies of purchasing (and using) camping gear, and the many exotic and endangered flora and fauna that inhabit the mountain trails.  He meets many interesting characters along the way, but none so much as his partner in crime, Katz, from whom many of the most comical episodes occur.  Bryson has a way of describing the AT in such detail and emotion that the reader is transported to the mountains of Virginia, the parks of Georgia, the trails of Maine, and the many places in between.  While it is certainly no “how-to” guide for hiking the Appalachian Trail, “A Walk in the Woods” made me want to do many things: appreciate the beauty of nature, reconnect with an old friend, find humor and humility in life, reflect, walk.

I would highly recommend this book to fans of Bill Bryson’s work, lovers of nature and  recreational hiking*, seekers of (mis)adventure memoirs, and history buffs who enjoy a good story with affable characters.

*There is some (gasp!) naughty language in the book, and hardcore, purist hikers might not appreciate Bryson and Katz’s lackadaisical approach to such an arduous task as trekking almost 2,200 miles on foot.  For this reason I would steer clear of recommending this book to those who might take offense to these.

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“Strength in What Remains”

Kidder, Tracy.  Strength in What Remains.  New York: Random House, Inc., 2009.  Print.

Borrowed from the Iowa City Public Library.

Read in (mostly) one sitting on Labor Day, 2012.

Three and a half out of five stars.

This first week’s selection is the 2012 All Iowa Reads title Strength in What Remains written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Tracy Kidder.  It tells the true story of Deogratias a native of Burundi, the tiny country nestled between Rwanda and Tanzania in eastern central Africa.  Deo, as he’s referred to in the book, narrowly escapes the genocide and civil war that ravages Rwanda and Burundi in early 1994 and finds himself in New York City with only $200 to his name.  Though he doesn’t speak English, Deo gets a job delivering groceries and faces the harsh realities known to many immigrants: hunger, homelessness and, despite the horrors he has witnessed in his native country, homesickness.  Prior to fleeing Africa Deo was in his third year of medical school on his way to becoming a doctor.  Eventually, albeit not easily, he finds favor with a series of good Samaritan New Yorkers who get him back on his feet and back into school.

Throughout the book Kidder takes the reader back and forth between Africa and the United States, beginning with Deo’s flight from Burundi to New York in 1994.  As the story unfolds we catch glimpses of Deo’s childhood, adolescence, and school years, all intwined with the story of his arrival in the United States.  Although I appreciate Kidder’s attempts to meld Deo’s past and present, the progression comes off as disjointed, even forced.  By skimming the text on the back cover the reader learns that Deo finds his way to “Columbia University, medical school, and a life devoted to healing.”  With this prior knowledge, the sporadic plot fails in its goal of lending suspense and drama to an already incredible, profound, heartbreaking and awe-inspiring story.  Kidder injects himself unnecessarily in the last third of the book, narrating in first person as he accompanies Deo back to Africa on a journey to build a rural medical clinic.  The history of the Burundian/Rwandan genocide and civil war Kidder gives in the last third of the book could have better supplemented the accounts of Deo’s life growing up in Africa; rather it read like a hasty, afterthought of a lecture.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this book, more so for the characters Kidder brings to life than for his story telling abilities.  Having grown up without war, famine and disease it is hard to empathize with Deo, but it’s hard not to admire him for his resilience and outlook on life (which, understandably so, is not always rose-colored).  And while it is difficult to read about the atrocities and injustices depicted in Strength in What Remains, but I think that is one of the reasons this selection was a good one for the All Iowa Reads program.  Too often it is easy to forget what happens outside of our own little worlds, and it takes stories like Deo’s to remind us that there are more important things in life and that our attitudes and character define and shape us in many ways.