All I want for Christmas

…is books. And other stuff. And to be rid of Christmas clichés.

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Not surprisingly, my Christmas list has several books on it. It is; however, slightly surprising that only two of them are in English. Originally there were three, but I accidentally bought one of them before sending out the list. One of them is a beautiful hardback version of my favorite book, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – Look how pretty it is: http://www.foliosociety.com/book/CTT/catch-22 !

I’m generally not a big fan of collecting editions or even reading hardbacks, but I can make an exception for this one. I could also accept owning a 1st edition hardback copy of Catch-22. Just in case someone decides to go a bit overboard with my present this year.

The other English book is The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. How I don’t already own this book, I don’t know. It definitely sounds like something that’s right up my gloomy alley.

Other than that, I’m going Scandinavian. For years and years I shunned books in Danish. I suppose I may have been a bit influenced by my English studies and my life-long love of American (pop-)lit.  But in recent years I have discovered that not everything written in Danish – or translated into Danish from Norwegian (I haven’t made my mind up about Swedish) – is horrible and dull. I may even have to concede that the effectiveness of the Danish language rivals English sometimes. Sometimes.

I haven’t reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard yet. I started reading his six volume auto-biography before I started this blog, so I’ll wait with the review until I finish it. But I will tell you that I haven’t felt this way about a writer since I discovered Bret Easton Ellis and Edgar Allan Poe. So of course three of his other books are on my list:

  • Hjemme-Ude
  • Om Efteråret
  • Sjælens Amerika

I don’t think they’ve been translated into English and I won’t guess at their titles. They’re all non-fiction, essays etc.

Another newly discovered Norwegian writer, that Knausgaard introduced me to, is Jon Fosse. I’ve just reviewed one of his short books and I have the rest of that trilogy on my list:

  • Olavs drømme
  • Kvælsvævd

No Danes? Yes, a couple of Danes. A couple of Danes that most people who are into Danish literature will have read ages and ages ago. Not me. No, I still have these to look forward to:

  • Hærværk (Havoc) by Tom Kristensen
  • Kongens Fald (Fall of the King) by Johannes V. Jensen

I expect to be really bored by these, so hopefully I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

That’s it for the Nordics. But this isn’t the only new territory I’ll be delving into. I’ve been inspired by a colleague to try my hand (and eyes) at this French guy Houellebecq. I don’t know a whole lot about him, except that he’s sparked some controversy. So I’ll give him a go with

  • Underkastelse (Submission)
  • Elementarpartikler (Atomised)

I know I won’t get all of these, so after Christmas I’ll have to go out and buy the ones I don’t get.

Are you also hoping for loads of books under the tree? Anything you’re particularly keen on getting? I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and get everything you wish for, even if it isn’t a book.

 

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

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Title: A Walk in the Woods
Author: Bill Bryson
Publisher: Black Swan
Release Date: 1998
Rating: 4/5

Yes, another book about hiking and no it’s just not because I’m going hiking myself in three weeks. I’m not saying they’re completely unrelated matters, but it’s not just because of that. It’s also not just because I too desperately want to do some serious long-distance hiking and the Appalachian Trail is at the top of my list. It’s also because it’s summer and summer means outdoorsy time, plus Bill Bryson has been known to be pretty funny. Not known by me, of course, until now.

After moving to the States, Bryson sets out to hike the AT. To avoid doing it alone, he sends words to a bunch of friends, asking if anyone wants to come. His high school friend, Stephen Katz (it seems to be a pseudonym) is the only one who reponds and says he wants to go. The two traveled Europe together in the 70’s and Bryson hasn’t seen him in years, but he’s excited to not be going alone. As it turns out, Katz has gained a lot of weight, has no hiking knowledge or experience, and really doesn’t want to be there. This makes for some pretty funny episodes.

“I had come to realize that I didn’t have any feelings toward the AT that weren’t thoroughly contradictory. I was weary of the trail, but captivated by it; found the endless slog increasingly exhausting but ever invigorating; grew tired of the boundless woods but admired their boundlessness; enjoyed the escape from the civilization and ached for its comforts. All of this together, all at once, every moment, on the trail or off.”

The book’s subtitle is Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. I have a feeling the witty Bryson is being ironic here, because unlike most travel literature about venturing into the great wide open, that I’ve read, he doesn’t seem have any specific philosophical or spiritual reasons. He’s not setting out to change his life, find Nirvana or go on some sort of nebulous quest. He just wants to go. Sure, he still has thoughts about the trail, what motivates people to go through with all the torment when no one has to be there. Maybe he’s semi-mocking the genre – and taking Katz into consideration this is entirely possible. Or maybe he’s rediscoverying Amerca through the history of the trail and the people he meets there, in some metaphorical way. Either way, all of the grandiose thoughts typical of the genre take a backseat to the actual hiking and the numerous funny and scary anecdotes about bears, interesting history, and enlightening (and depressing) environmental facts.

“I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on Earth…”

But it’s not all backstory. Bryson and Katz do end up in some funny situations and meet a few hilariously annoying people. Bryson is a bit of a snark, though, and is generally pretty harsh on the other hikers, but it all makes for good reading. And Katz, well, you need to experience him for youself – even if Bryson has admitted that most of what Katz does it made up. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny if you ask me, but I did chuckle a few times and I was always interested to see what they would get up to next. Especially considering Bryson’s fear of bears and murderous hillbillies. And while a few people have met their demise on the trail, I won’t spoil the book by revealing whether or not they do run into bears or Deliverance-type rednecks. But I will say that the books definitely hasn’t put me off wanting to hike the AT myself.

Bryson’s language is humorous and relaxed, and his research extensive (it would seem). Overall a great summer read, especially if you’re more interested in the AT area than in Bryson himself. And you don’t need to be a hiker at heart to enjoy it – it might actually help if you aren’t.

Wild – A journey From Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed

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Title: Wild – A Journey From Lost To Found
Author: Cheryl Strayed
Publisher: Atlantic Books
Release Date: 2012
Rating: 3/5

Cheryl Strayed doesn’t have great coping or impulse control skills. At 26 she has been through four years of chaos. Her mother has died rapidly from cancer, her siblings scattered and their step-father withdrawn from them to be with his new family. Unable to keep her family together, Cheryl turns away from her loving husband and to any man who’ll have her (and eventually to heroin), thus wrecking her marriage. On top of this, she’s wracked up considerable student debt without even finishing her degree. She decides to take the name Strayed, because she has. Hoping to heal and return to the person she once was, Cheryl makes the rash decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border. Or some of it. Completely inexperienced and ill-prepared, Cheryl packs a rucksack so monstrously heavy that she can barely get it off the ground, and sets out on a three month long hike. She’s determined, sure, but also foolish and lazy.

On the trail she faces harsh conditions, hunger and thirst, but also bounds of beauty and kindness. She struggles through incredible heat, dangerous snowfall (though she skips the worst of it) and dark, lonely nights. She has to deal with ill-chosen equipment – her boots are too small and make her toenails fall off – rattlesnakes and a creepy stranger or two. But she also meets generosity and support in the people she encounters along the way (a shocking number of people want to sleep with her as well). Not to mention from REI who send her a new pair of boots free of charge. Things have a way of working out for her, people help her out a lot and her situation never becomes desperate enough to be really impressive.

“I’m not afraid” she tells herself, and she learns that most of the time, she doesn’t need to be.

“…the death of my mother was the thing that made me believe the most deeply in my safety: nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had.”

Her story is not simply one of hiking though hundreds of miles of wilderness. While we do get some sparse description of the spectacular scenery, this is not what’s in focus. Rather, Cheryl’s internal world is the main setting; her relationship with her mother, her abusive and estranged father, and her loving but not-quite-enough husband. These tales intertwine with her experiences on the trail. Especially the stories of her mother’s death and the putting down of her mother’s gorgeous horse are heart-breaking but a bit too tear-jerking for my taste. I understand the self-pity, but I don’t very much like looking at it.

The hike changed Cheryl, both in body and in mind, and may have helped her get her life back together. On the trail she was full of sorrow, doubt and weighed down by all that had happened to her, and all that she had done to herself.

“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”

But it took her 15 years to realize the full meaning of her journey. As it turns out, despite all of the hardship, pain and injuries she sustains, going hiking might have been a good decision.

While reflection and self-discovery are the main themes in the book, I found far more enjoyment in the passages about the hike itself, the camaraderie with the people she meets, and her relationship with the books she read – and burns! – on the trail. In many ways, the books help save her and I couldn’t wait to see which book would be in the pre-packaged box at her next stop ( it seems that Cheryl and I are both fans of the Southern Gothic genre). I could imagine myself doing the same thing, eating the same freeze-dried foods, stale trail-mix and pitching my tent in the pouring rain. These are the passages that make the book engaging and make Cheryl more than a bundle of self-pity and self-absorption. She’s tough and incredibly honest. She’s also pretty lucky that her cluelessness and lack of backpacking savvy didn’t get her killed.

However, I must say that I didn’t find the prose itself to be anything special.  It’s not particularly bad, but there’s not much of a distinctive voice or style, no poetry. It’s a quick and easy read but it’s also very entertaining, and if like me, you have a long-distance hiker inside that’s just dying to come out, I’m sure Cheryl’s adventure will awaken the wanderlust in you.