Category Archives: Humor

“A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson

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Besides commencement on Saturday, I am officially done with my Master’s Degree Program!  It is a very exciting time in my life as I transition from being a student to settling into my new job as a grant writer.  This new chapter in my life also means that I have more time to dedicate to things that bring me joy; the number one being reading, and number two writing about what I’ve read.

I’ve managed to read a book every now and then in grad school, but my priorities were on classes and teaching.  As soon as my last class got out however, I perused my bookshelves and pulled out all the books I’ve been meaning to read forever but haven’t gotten around to.  The first one was A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

Bryson is a well-known and prolific writer.  I remember when I worked at bookstores, he was an author that could be found in many sections: travel writing, history, science, and outdoors.  In college I read his travel memoir The Lost Continent.  While I found some of his snide remarks about people in small towns borderline stereotypical and insulting, I nevertheless appreciated his humor and writing style.  Then a few years later, A Walk in the Woods became a movie and I thought “Oh yeah, I should read that book by him next.”  My dad had a copy of this book in his nightstand, which stuck in my mind because I can count on my right hand how many books I’ve seen my dad read since I could count.  I bought a copy at the Half Price Books I was working at two years ago, and then the book sat in my shelf until this year.

That’s the long story of how I finally came to read this book.  Now onto the book itself.

Anyone who has read a Bryson book before this one will recognize his unique sense of humor.  Bryson does like to make fun of people a lot, but he makes up for his snarky comments by adding in plenty of self-deprecation.  He begins by deciding (seemingly out off the blue) to walk the Appalachian Trail.  Once he is set upon this adventure, he chronicles finding a partner to join him; an old friend and recovering alcoholic named Katz.

This memoir follows the “broken line narrative” structure.  Interspersed with Bryson’s anecdotes of preparing for the trail, interactions with Katz and other hikers, and his experiences, he gives background on the history of the Appalachian Trail and side notes about bear attacks and ecology.  As someone who had a very basic background on the Appalachian Trail, I appreciated his mix  of facts with personal experience, and a large dollop of humor for entertainment purposes.  Here is one example that had me spit out my coffee in laughter:

“Up to that moment it had not occurred to me that bears might prowl in parties. What on earth would I do if fourbears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless. I would blow my sphincter out my backside like one of those unrolling paper streamers you get at children’s parties–I daresay it would even give a merry toot–and bleed to a messy death in my sleeping bag.”

The best part of this memoir was the interaction between Bryson and Katz.  They were old friends, but hadn’t spoken in years.  Throughout the book, I had so many questions about Katz: why he had decided to join Bryson, why they had lost touch, and what was his background.  Bryson manages to keep the suspense and doesn’t fully reveal all of Katz’s nature until the end.  My one critique of this book is that in the middle section, Katz is absent.  To me, he was my favorite character and his interactions with Bryson and the other hikers they encountered were the strongest parts.

It’s a great time of year to read a book about nature.  If you’re looking for something funny or informative to read, A Walk in the Woods is a great choice.  Just don’t expect it to inspire you to trek the Appalachian Trail yourself.  Instead, live vicariously through Bryson’s adventure and be thankful you don’t have to eat dried noodles every day for weeks on end.

What’s on your summer reading bucket list?  Tell me in the comments!

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Filed under Humor, Memoir, travel writing

2014 Books: A Summary

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My failure to post for the past several months is a result of moving to Turkey and being too busy getting acclimated to my new environment and reading to write.  Though my blogging has been scarce, I have gotten more reading done in the past four months than I’ve ever had the chance to do in my life.  I love my host city in Turkey, but there’s not a lot to do so I’ve been walking a lot and have discovered the wonder of audio books.  Get exercise and read at the same time?  Why haven’t I jumped on this bandwagon before?

Anyways, it would be a ridiculously long post if I wrote a review of every book I’ve read recently.  Instead, I will group them together into categories, and share my favorite book from each.

1) Dean Koontz books

Life Expectancy

Sole Survivor

Velocity

Innocence

Strange Highways

Favorite: Life Expectancy.  It’s a classic Dean Koontz novel that contains suspense, elements of science fiction, but the characters are particularly well developed in this novel.  I thought the ending was perfect as it tied up loose ends but left the reader questioning what would happen if there was a sequel.  The book had you guessing the entire time, but Koontz revealed answers slowly in a way that keeps the reader from getting too frustrated.

2) A Song of Ice and Fire Series by George R.R. Martin

A Storm of Swords

A Feast for Crows

A Dance with Dragons (started)

Favorite: it’s a tie because these books tend to run together and it’s been awhile ago since I’ve read them so I’ll just say that as a series, I’m hooked. I want to finish the latest book so I can look up fan theories without worrying about spoilers, but the next book won’t come out for at least another year.  Oye, the annoyance of being addicted to a series! It’s like Harry Potter all over again, but Mr. Martin is taking his sweet time.

3) Non-fiction books

Jesus Freaks (true crime book about the Family cult) by Don Lattin

Life After College (self help) by Jenny Blake

Wild (memoir/travelogue) by Cheryl Strayed

Hallucinations (science) by Oliver Sacks

The Good Nurse (true crime) by Charles Graeber

In Defense of Food (science) by Michael Pollan

The Red Queen (genetics, currently reading) by Matt Ridley

Favorite: In Defense of Food.  Michael Pollan strikes again with a well-researched book that makes you question your food culture.  I enjoyed The Omnivore’s Dilemma years ago and have watched many documentaries on the food industry in America, but this book offered a fresh look at the issues in the US.  What I like best about Pollan’s writing is that he bases his arguments on facts and research, not his hidden political agenda. In science writing, it’s easy to pick out certain studies and use them to promote veganism or animal rights, etc, but Pollan is clearly interested in the food industry because he is inspired by the science behind it, not the social issues (although his research leads to social issues that are easily ignored).

4) Books related to Turkey that I read right before coming, or during orientation

The Yogurt Man Cometh by Kevin Revolinski

Tulipomania by Mike Dash

An Ongoing Affair: Turkey and I by Heath W. Lowry

Favorite: The Yogurt Man Cometh.  It’s a short and snappy travelogue about one man (from my home state Wisconsin!) who teaches in Turkey and shares his misadventures.  I enjoyed reading the book while in Turkey because I could relate to some of his experiences.  His book also inspired me to be more persistent in blogging regularly.

5) Teen Books

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Favorite: The Fault in Our Stars.  I cried. So much.  Then because I loved the book so much and am an emotional masochist, I immediately went and saw the movie.  And ugly cried some more into my popcorn; the tears upping the salt content; giving me temporary hypertension.  Before reading The Fault in Our Stars, I had a bad taste in my mouth about teen books after the poorly edited, meaningless sack of literary garbage that is The Hunger Games.  The Fault in Our Stars restored my faith in the teen lit genre and hope for the future generation.  It’s a book that’s destined to be a classic.

6) Books written by celebrities that, upon looking back, I’m not sure why I read them

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Favorite: Neither.  I think I was sucked into exploring this genre while working at BookPeople because these books were flying off the shelf like hotcakes.  Moral of the story: when it comes to bestsellers, the customer is not always right.

7) Classic novels

Little Birds by Anais Nin

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

The Crucible by Arthur Miller

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The Secret History by Donna Tratt

Favorite: It’s a tie between A Clockwork Orange and The Secret History.  Both were very disturbing books, but they had strong messages and are guaranteed to haunt you.  The Secret History had well developed characters and was impossible to put down.  A Clockwork Orange is a classic book, but is definitely worth reading.

As a side note, The Wasp Factory is probably one of the most messed up books I’ve ever read.  I finished it in one night and immediately took a long shower afterwards.  It’s not a bad book, it’s actually quite brilliant.  But you will feel like the world is a horrible place afterwards.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As another side note, I was very disappointed by two books. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the first.  It’s no fault of Mr. Stevenson though.  It was incredibly well written, but the success of the book depended on the reader not knowing the big punch line.  Everyone today knows that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person, so it ruins the whole book.  The whodunnit question that I’m sure was trailing readers along eagerly over a hundred years ago is now common knowledge.  Poor Mr. Stevenson.

The other book that I may be criticized for hating is Little Women.  All the characters were so annoying.  I thought they were all spoiled, self centered, shallow, and weak.  Jo was the only character with any sort of complexity, but oh boy she learns her place in the end when she finally settles down and adheres to expectations of society.  Furthermore, I found all of the girls’ “problems” to be incredibly petty.  Beth had the best idea, which was to just sorta check out of life before she ended up living as a housewife whose only excitement would be something like her dear husband bringing her silk gloves but she, being humble and pious, would sell them to buy poor children some bread.

8) Sci-fi–Fantasy–Horror

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I can’t choose a favorite from this list, because all these books were amazing, with the exception of Night Circus.  That book was just, meh.  Warm Bodies was a captivating book that was more than just a zombie novel.  The Girl With All the Gifts was enjoyable because the author put a lot of work into making the science behind a zombie apocalypse make sense.  The two zombie books, along with Never Let Me Go were all thought provoking books that asked the question: what does it mean to be human?  The Ocean at the End of the Lane was a bizarre book, but the fantasy elements were successful in supporting the theme of childhood memories.

9) Stephen King

Christine

The Green Mile

Salem’s Lot

It (Currently reading)

Favorite: Christine.  Wow, this book packed a punch.  The character development is phenomenal, the storytelling is perfection.  The last Stephen King book I read was Carrie, and that was years ago.  This book had me hooked from the beginning.  I can see why King is such a successful writer: he adds so much color and flavor to the characters that you can picture them acting the action out in front of you.  He is also a master of slowly building up suspense.  I enjoyed his other books, but Christine especially stands out, I think because of how Arnie changed so drastically in response to Christine.  Right now, I’m reading It and I think this one will come in a close second, if not I’ll like it as much as Christine.

10) Other novels

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

The Goldfinch by Donna Tratt

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Favorite: It’s a tie between Me Before You and The Goldfinch.

Me Before You is a heartbreaking love story, well written and captivating.  The Goldfinch is an epic Dickens style novel that covers years of one boy’s life.  Both were enjoyable reads in their own way.  I’ve heard that some people don’t like The Goldfinch because they were expecting some sort of art history book or something like The Da Vinci Code.  If you’re going to read it, expect to enter a long, but well written novel with great character development.

According to Goodreads, I’ve read 52 books this year.  Wow.  And most of the books I’ve read this year I’ve finished between September and now.  In a year, I’ve read at least one book from almost every genre in existence.  Some books haunted me, some scared me, some made me laugh, some made me wrap myself in a blanket and go through a box of tissues, some made me question society, and some shattered my ignorance.  Most importantly, they all took me on adventures and returned me as a person changed.

As Stephen King said: “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

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Filed under Classics, Fiction, horror, Humor, Memoir, Mystery, Non-fiction, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Teen Books

“Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?” by Mindy Kaling

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Although I am a self-proclaimed book snob, sometimes I just want to read something mindless, entertaining, and fun.  After listening to Bossypants on tape, my expectations of books written by comedy writers dwindled somewhat.  Being a huge fan of the tv show The Office, especially the hilarious character Kelly Kapoor, I was intrigued by the book the actor that played her wrote.

Compared to Bossypants, this book was ten times funnier, better written, and interesting.  Her book is a series of short essays about growing up and how she became a writer for The Office.  Kaling recounts her early life as an overweight Indian girl, and how she found her niche watching and writing comedy as she grew older.  Kaling is far from the Hollywood definition of beautiful and glamorous, and I love her for that.  She stands out from the homogeneous and boring melange of modern actresses.

Part of what makes her book successful is that she’s relateable.  Who hasn’t gone through an awkward phase growing up?  What human hasn’t felt self conscious about his/her body at some point or another?   Who has ever gone through a post-college phase, living in poverty and wondering what the heck they’re going to do next? As a side note, I especially enjoyed reading about her living in a cockroach infested apartment in New York.  It gave me hope as a person living in a cockroach infested apartment in Austin. Through her transition from dorky pudgy kid to successful writer and actress, Kaling never loses her sense of self.  I admire her for being self confident and sticking to her convictions when she is constantly surrounded by pressure to conform to Hollywood expectations.

If you were/are a fan of The Office and are a female (in all honesty this book seems aimed at women), you would enjoy this book for a quick, fluff read.  I give it 3/5 stars because it’s an enjoyable book, but not an outstanding piece of literature.

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Bossypants by Tina Fey

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Every now and then, I give into the temptation of reading a best seller.  Usually, I am disappointed.  As pretentious as I may sound now, best sellers are best sellers because they appeal to the average citizen of average intelligence who likes easily digestible books.  I like a challenge.  So why did I chose to read a memoir about a famous comedian?

1) I wanted to listen to something funny during my commutes.

2) I think Tina Fey is a great comedian and a strong woman.

3) Fey worked as a writer for SNL, so I figured her writing would be superior to some of the other celebrity “authors” out there.

My past experience with comedic memoirs has been positive, mainly because I’ve only read David Sedaris.  Sedaris is the king of humor essays.  Without knowing it, I started Bossypants with Sedaris level expectations.

This book wasn’t bad by any means.  But it also didn’t make me laugh as much as I anticipated.  This book got great reviews and I thought I was in for a comedic treat.  However, I was surprised by how negative and almost vindictive Fey’s writing was.  For instance, there was a whole section where she talked about how she would respond to criticisms of her that were posted on various social mediums.  That seemed very middle-schoolish to me.  Instead of rising above the haters, she spent a lot of time making snarky responses that she clearly spent way too much time constructing. 

Another thing I didn’t like about the book was how humble she was.  Yeah, it’s nice that she’s not arrogant but she should have some pride in how far she’s come, because she’s worked really hard for her success.  It’s so stereotypical for women to down play their successes.  I expected more from someone I thought of as a an empowering female figure. 

The last thing that bothered me, which is a minor thing and only applies to the audiobook: there were a few times she mumbled something really quickly and I couldn’t catch it.  If I rewound that part and cranked up the volume, I still couldn’t here what she said and then proceeded to have a heart attack when the next sentence was belted out.

Overall, I got a few chuckles from this book and listening to it on tape was an entertaining way to make my commute more manageable.  Listening to this book though is like tuning into a pop radio station: it gives you something to listen to, but you are aware it’s just background noise.

2/5 stars

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