A Walk In The Woods

A Walk In The Woods – Bill Bryson

First Published: 1997, Doubleday

This Edition: 2015, Black Swan

From the back of the book:  “The longest continuous footpath in the world, the Appalachian Trail stretches along the East Coast of the United States, from Georgia to Maine. At the age of forty-four, in the company of his friend Stephen Katz, Bill Bryson set off to hike through the vast tangled woods which have been frightening sensible people for three hundred years. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing ticks, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.”

Thoughts:  I read this when I needed an adventure, but didn’t have the time off work available to have one. Having finished it, I now want to walk over 2,000 miles through the forests and mountains of the Appalachian Trail. So, this is a dangerous book.

Bryson’s anecdotes filled the pages with stories of Katz’s blunders as they attempt to reach Maine on foot. What Katz hadn’t told Bill on the phone was that since they last met he’d developed an alcohol problem, a strict eating regime and put on a substantial amount of weight. Perfect for trekking half way up the USA, right?

I spent most of the book waiting for them to get eaten by a bear, or fall off the side of a rocky cliff edge, despite knowing that at least Bill lived to tell the tail. I’m not entirely sure how they managed what they did.

In addition to reminiscing about the journey, Bryson introduces us to the wildlife of the Smokies, an unflattering summary of the history of the National Park Service, and some wonderful characters. The most memorable of these for me was Mary-Ellen, and it’s left me quite concerned that she may still be wandering about in the mountains somewhere pestering middle-aged men on a mission.

Edibility Rating: 4 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Every twenty minutes on the Appalachian Trail, Katz and I walked further than the average American walks in a week. For 93 per cent of all trips outside the home, for whatever distance or whatever purpose, Americans now get in a car. That’s ridiculous.”

Buy A Walk In The Woods Here

The Size of the World

The Size of the World – Branco Andic

First Published: In Serbian as Velicina sveta, by Prosveta, 2008

This Edition: 2015, Geopoetika Publishing

From the back of the book:  “The Size of the World offers a finely structured story about a world long gone but forever existing in its protagonists. It depicts Andic’s experience of growing up and coming of age in the former Yugoslavia, from the early 1960s till the late 1980s, presenting an image of a typical Yugoslave childhood of the time, with some notable differences that formed the author’s character and his world-view…This portrait of the artist as a young and somewhat older man is a pleasure to read.”

Thoughts:  I picked this book up in one of many busy, bustling bookshops in Belgrade. As our book stores dwindle in the UK, it was refreshing to watch people milling around the stands, picking up titles and inspecting them carefully before making their choices. My own choice was somewhat restricted by the fact that I cannot read Serbian, but a selection of translated prose gave me access to some modern and classic works, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

I’m still not entirely sure if this book is fiction or not. If it is not, then it is a piece of non-fiction written in the style of fiction, and it works fabulously.

The protagonist is now an adult, but reflections on his own childhood act as a background for reflection on his son’s coming of age as, his own ever-increasing maturity and the early experiences of his father.

A sporting theme recurs throughout, from trying to engage his teenage son, to idolising his dad as one of the finest swimmers on the beach. How can you not be one of the greatest when you’re wearing hand-decorated swimming trunks? But the sport really serves to illustrate the subtleties of family relationships. The trophy on the cabinet: Do you allow your son to believe it was from an Olympic race, or admit that perhaps dad isn’t the champion you think he is?

Alcohol is another topic to create a wake-up call. Surely, from a family of wine-makers, the traditions and tastes will be passed through the generations? How is Dad supposed to act then, when his son’s first alcoholic request (and the second, and the third,) is for beer?

Some of the memories visited are touching, and some made me cringe. There is a finely portrayed moment where the child gets it so wrong. But that’s what happens as you grow up, sometimes you put your foot in it, and it’s unfair to expect a little person to understand the difference between having some money and being a millionaire. Still, the scene on holiday where the penny drops recalled to my mind moments in my own childhood where a misunderstanding left me confused and wondering why people were pulling funny faces at my comments.

The tiny moments of victory experienced within a family are cherished in this book. When your own festive calendar doesn’t match with celebrations authorised by the state, it must be a huge internal struggle. But reading about how the family managed to balance what had to be done, with what they felt they should do, really makes me grateful for never having encountered such dilemmas.

I am very pleased with my random selection, and will keep an eye out for other translations from Geopoetika.

Edibility Rating: 3 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “Only amateurs and self-important tourists count miles. For travellers by trade, they just fill in the space from here to there.”

Buy The Size of the World Here

The Living Mountain

The Living Mountain – Nan Shepherd

First Published: 1977, Aberdeen University Press

This Edition: 2011, Canongate Books

From the back of the book:  “Awe-inspiring, poetic and philosophical, The Living Mountain is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century nature writing.”

Thoughts: This book is beautifully written. From the descriptions of the scenery to the immersive way Shepherd walks you through the Cairngorms, it’s a delight to read. The only drawback is its brevity, at only 108 pages long, I could have read more. I would, however, skip reading the introduction. It is almost as long as the main text, and although an interesting look into the context of the book, I feel like Robert Macfarlane gives away most of the precious lines before you have a chance to reach them yourself. I’ve learnt my lesson there.

From years spent wandering in the mountains, Shepherd divides her thoughts into logical chapters, from plant-life to the humans that inhabit and appreciate  them. Her observations of the living world are astute yet poetic, and peppered with subtle commentary on human nature that give this book its substance. If I were to spend a week in the Cairngorms now, I would be looking out for the wonderful characters that she meets on her adventures, even though she forlornly added that most had passed away prior to publishing.

Her descriptions of the living world are never dry. When writing about the experience of walking through heather, the scent “like too much incense in church, it blunts the sharp sense of adoration, which, at its finest, demands clarity of intellect as well as the surge of emotion.” Each time a tiny fragment of the scenery is described in this way, I couldn’t help but stop and think ‘wow, I would never have thought to put it like that.’ And so, I spent a lot of time thinking about how clever the writing was, in addition to enjoying the reading.

The manuscript was finished in 1945, but lay unpublished until the late seventies. Whether this was due to a lack of confidence in it, indicated through letters discussed in the introduction, or the lack of market, I don’t know. But I wonder whether she would have attempted publication earlier had she known that The Living Mountain would become one of the true nature writing classics?

Edibility Rating: 4.5 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “But they are not in the books for me – they are in living encounters, moments of their life that have crossed moments of mine.”

Buy The Living Mountain Here

A Primate’s Memoir

A Primate’s Memoir – Robert M Sapolsky

First Published: 2001, Jonathan Cape

This Edition: 2002, Vintage

From the back of the book: “Book-smart and more than a little naive, Robert Sapolsky left the comforts of college in the US for a research project studying a troop of baboons in Kenya. Whether he’s relating his adventures with his neighbours, Masai tribesmen, or his experiences learning how to sneak up and dart suspicious baboons, Sapolsky combines irreverence and humour with the best credentials in his field.”

Thoughts: Robert Sapolsky is a biologist. A neurologist, if you want to be picky. Now, he has all the duties and pressures that being a Professor in his field has to offer. This book takes you right back to the beginning, collecting data for his work on the physical effects of stress.

Writing fan mail to primatologists as a child will only get you so far. I should know, I tried it. Sapolsky took it one step further and became one himself, and this retelling of his experiences in the field is both informative and entertaining.  Heading off to Kenya to dart baboons for his research, Sapolsky does a good job of introducing his new subjects, who come across as you would expect a good monkey troop to do. They squabble, they groom, they play, they work their way up the hierarchy, fall down it with a crash, and they forage for lunch. But they also have the dangers of the outside world to face, some of which we encounter in these stories.

One amusing scene documents an absolute nightmare of an attempt to dart a baboon. It’s so disastrous that you can’t help but internally shout “What are you doing? Just give up already!” But as with all comic writing it had to happen in order for us to read about it years later. It certainly makes you realise that even experts have to start out somewhere. I include this here because a friend of mine is brought to hysterics every time she comes across it, contributing to it being her favourite non-fiction book of all time. That’s quite some praise!

Although the baboons are the focal point of this book, the majority of the writing seems to account the author’s travel experiences. This is where his sense of humour comes in, mainly at his naivety and questionable decisions on the move, one of which sees him ordering hundreds of sodas at the hands of a gang who partially kidnap him, seemingly just for fun. These stories provide the substance for most of the middle section of the book, with the baboons taking a backseat to the human primates, but as we re-enter baboon society properly towards the last part of the book things start to get serious.

As disease strikes, the fate of his beloved monkey companions hangs in the balance. Investigating the cause and studying those that are unwell clearly intrigues the scientist in Sapolsky, but he has worked with this troop for two decades, and these animals have become a huge part of his life. This really comes across towards the end of the book, where his writing becomes more fluid, and I couldn’t put it down until I knew how things turned out. This was, for me, Sapolsky’s finest writing, despite his admission that: “These are not a crafted, balanced set of events, and the telling of them will not be particularly crafted either.”

Edibility Rating: 4 Monster Points

Favourite Line: “They seemed like two maddened, paranoid forest gnomes.”

Buy A Primate’s Memoir here


Set Finding: Breakfast At Tiffany’s

Have you ever read a book and wondered what the places look like in real life?

I experienced the opposite phenomenon in the middle of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a weekend in New York recently, the sights still excitingly fresh in my mind. So when our narrator recalls his precious time with Holly Golightly, my inner cinema clicks into action.

“Once, we walked all the way to Chinatown, ate a chow-mein supper, bought some paper lanterns, and stole a box of joss sticks, then moseyed across the Brooklyn Bridge” – Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

My visit, over sixty years since the story was set, wasn’t too dissimilar. We walked to Chinatown, ate dumplings and noodles, bought a fridge magnet featuring the New York Skyline and moseyed over to the Brooklyn Bridge. I stole no joss sticks. Hope that’s not too disappointing for you.

In the book, they ride horses through Central Park, but we settled for going by (human) foot, partly because I have no idea where you can pick up a horse in central New York, and partly because I can’t ride a horse. Even so, my day and a half in New York was enough to furnish my imagination with some real memories to call on, which I think is surely all the more reason to travel… right?