Armchair Hiking

walk woods bill bryson
[Source: Amazon]
On the first day of my Nature Writing class, we were assigned to read a book of our choice that had a strong nature theme. It could be anything, from fiction to poetry. I chose Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (1998) for several reasons. From the time I read Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way, I’ve been a Bryson fan. Then, too, my roots are in Appalachia. Last but not least, I had the book on my shelf—still unread. Now that I’ve read it, I want to share.
Armchair Hiking
The Appalachian Trail (AT) is approximately 2100 miles. If you read the book, you will understand why the exact length is unknown, but for my purposes, it is sufficient to know that it’s hugely long and stretches from Georgia to Maine. Bryson (not a hiker) starts with a chapter describing his almost whimsical decision to walk the AT and the buying frenzy of assembling the necessary equipment. And right away I was drawn in. As a reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times said, “Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.”


appalachian trail south
[Source: Warrior Expeditions]
It’s difficult to cite representative funny passages because (1) there are so many of them; and (2) often the humor is in a whole situation, scene or exchange, not a succinct quip. He started in Georgia in March, intending to end in Maine in October, a timetable intended to avoid suffocating heat in the south and New England winter. In the even, that March brought a record cold snap, and the first day of spring came in the midst of a blizzard. And that’s pretty much the way the hike went: never quite what was planned.


Bryson’s writing is take-you-there-with-him vivid. For example, “…we were half-blinded by flying snow and jostled by gusts of wind, which roared through the dancing trees and shook us by our backpacks. This wasn’t a blizzard; it was a tempest.”


appalachian trail midway
[Source: Warrior Expeditions]
I like the insights he shares. “Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way. . . .The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know.” This is true only for those of us living the typical American life or a similar one in another developed country—but that’s true enough for most of his readers.


Reading a Bryson book is always a learning experienceA Walk in the Woods is packed with history, geography, and botany. The idea of the AT started with Benton MacKaye in 1921, work actually started in 1930 under the auspices of Myron Avery, who mapped it out, extended it from 1200 to over 2000 miles, supervised construction, and convinced hiking clubs to provide volunteer work crews.


Bryson is a skilled observer. The details he notes allow the reader to see how the trees of the north differ from those in the south, identify denizens of the flower-strewn meadows, and quake beside sheer drop-offs. And he is wonderfully in touch with real people—people who can cite statistics about the rarity of a hiker being attacked by a black bear, and the greater rarity of one being killed, but still have anxiety attacks because “It does happen!”


The only thing that put me off a bit about the book was a somewhat stereotypical disdain for fat people and hillbillies. Perhaps that’s where the book’s age came into play.  Bur it never tipped into meanness. In any event, it didn’t keep me from enjoying the book overall. There are moments of tenderness, and a budding awareness of the danger to our environment.


appalachian trail maine
[Source: Down East Magazine]
I’ll end by mentioning his walking companion, Stephen Katz. It wouldn’t have been the same book—and probably not as good—without Bryson’s unexpected fellow traveler. It’s a feel-good book from beginning to end. Other than that, I won’t tell you how it ends—except to say, “They both lived to tell the tale.”


bill bryson
[Source: Independent]
Bottom line: Read this book—or any Bryson book—and be prepared to be drawn into non-fiction.

Books, Travel, Life is Good!

spain book
In a few days I am leaving for Portugal and Spain. For the modern traveler setting off on such an excursion, the expected reading is likely to be a travel guide. In that type of book, I highly recommend the Lonely Planet guides. They are clear, accurate, and comprehensive.


virginia is for mysteries vivian lawry
But those are not the only books people turn to for travel guidance. At one point, Virginia Is For Mysteries was ranked #3 in the Amazon list of travel and tourism—presumably because each story was set in a different Virginia location. People at book signings have said they actually used the book to decide where to go on vacations. One woman said she and her friend were in the process of visiting all the places written about!


charlaine harris malice domestic mystery most historical
A similar volume is likely to appeal to the armchair traveler. My story in this volume is set in Civil War Richmond, but other authors chronicle death and destruction from Puritan Massachusetts to post-WWII settings, and from Buffalo to Wales.


bill bryson books
Although not always writing of travel, when he does, Bill Bryson is one of my favorites. He has a slanted view that appeals to me, along with rich detail, humor, and a fresh take on familiar places.
Perhaps you read Blue Highways when it first came out in 1981. It was a bestseller. And it has staying power, for it was reissued in 2012! William Least Heat Moon traveled what one might call secondary roads or scenic byways—the ones shown on road maps as blue lines. He has an amazing voice for taking one off the interstate!


Bottom line: Travel reading is good, and travel is made even better by reading!

Sickbed Reading

sickbed reading
A horrendous bout of bronchitis has plagued me for weeks, going from bad to worse. I’m talking about coughing so long, hard, and often that my entire ribcage ached. I’m talking about such congestion that every time I changed positions, I could hear as well as feel fluids sloshing around in my lungs and sinuses, and would cough all the more. I’m talking about flushed face and frigid fingers. I’m talking about no energy, and sleeping (albeit poorly) twenty hours a day, till my whole body felt stiff and sore from lack of movement. (Yes, oh, poor me!)


sickbed reading
At times like these, I like cold drinks, something warm and cozy to wrap up in, and no body bugging me with, “How are you feeling?” And as I sleep less and ache less, I like comfort reads.
A prime requirement for my sickbed reading is familiarity. Hence, Jane Austen is a go-to choice. I know what’s going to happen and that all anguish will come to naught. I can even get this sort of read with a Jane Austen fan fiction variation. The characters remain the same and the action is still low-key. Which brinks me to another criterion for sickbed reading…


west night beryl markham
[Source: Wikipedia]
walk woods bill bryson
[Source: Wikipedia]
A second criterion for my good sickbed read is that it be low-key. Absolutely no action/adventure here. Consider Markham and Bryson. I want the emotion to be relatively mild and generally upbeat.


I’m not alone in these criteria. I have a granddaughter who recently reread Harry Potter while ill, and her sister reread the Wings of Fire series. Various friends and acquaintances go off in various directions. Here are some of the most popular, returned to again and again.


I’ve turned the corner on this bronchitis—I hope and trust. I’m ready to rebuild my sickbed shelf for next time. What do you read when you’re sick? I’d love to know.

Shades of Professor Henry Higgins!

shades professor henry higgins speaking american josh katz
A new tool to help the writer get it right.


During my first trip abroad, I was amused to learn that Europeans make a distinction between speaking English and speaking American. No doubt I was just naive. This was before I started collecting dictionaries, or surely I would have noticed.


It was sometime later that I read Bill Bryson’s wonderful book The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.


shades professor henry higgins bill bryson mother tongue
Bryson leads us on a wonderful romp through English from the beginnings of language to its future. It’s a laugh-out-loud read, but fair warning: there is a lot of information here. My sister-in-law never finished it, she said because she could never remember all that detail. I read it for the laughs and the big picture, so no problem.


Bryson’s book was published in 1990, and it’s still a great read. Richard W. Bailey’s Speaking American was published in 2012, and is more focused. As you can see from the Table of Contents, he follows a timeline by exploring key cities. Bailey was a long-time professor at the University of Michigan, and his book is academically solid—but it’s very accessible and much more entertaining than you might expect!
So why did I start this blog with an image of Speaking American? Because this is a book writers can use as well as enjoy! As the cover indicates, it is a visual guide. In Speaking American* How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, Josh Katz highlights some of the myriad quirks of American English and literally shows you where people talk that way.


water fountain speaking american
For example, he gives the big picture of where people say drinking fountain versus water fountain, but also the really weird spots (my label) in Michigan and New England where they say bubbler. Think what a delightful detail that could be if you have a scene set in a bubbler locale.
fireflies speaking american
You can glean other helpful details as well. For example, besides knowing where, in general, people say firefly rather than lightning bug, you can also get down to very specific locales.


bar graph new york speaking american
And  you can choose a label according to the time when your story is set.


maps by decade speaking american
I grew up saying lightning bug. I mourn that they seem on their way to language extinction.


lawn speaking american
Finally, by cross-referencing, you can learn whether the same people who are likely to cut the grass (as opposed to mow the lawn or mow the grass) are likely to be wearing tennis shoes, gym shoes, or sneakers; would refresh themselves with soda, pop, or coke (not necessarily Coke); and spend time catching crayfish or crawdads. This book is a writer’s delight. Even if you don’t need or want it to write authentic dialogue, it’s a fun read and is likely to make you appreciate even more the nuance in the stories you read.


back cover speaking american

Great Non-Fiction Reads

top ten tuesday
Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature created by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, they provide a prompt for bloggers. Today’s prompt is “Top Ten ALL TIME Favorite Books Of X Genre.”
Yes, great non-fiction is a broad topic. Everything falls in there, from memoir to cookbooks to investigative reporting! I loved West With the Night, The Glass Castle, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
But I’m not going to deal with that sort of non-fiction. I don’t know how to classify my sub-genre, so I’ll just put the exemplars out there!


mary roach books
Mary Roach makes science reader-friendly. She writes about everything from sex research (Bonk) to human cadavers (Stiff). Without Roach, I’d never have stopped to wonder how crash dummies are calibrated—etc., etc., etc. Pick up any of her books.
charles panati books
Charles Panati is a master of what I call “grouped trivia.” His titles say it all. Choose any one and you’ll get what you expect—except that you’ll likely enjoy it more! I consider Panati’s books reference works—for, as you may know, I often write weird stories (cf. Different Drummer: a collection of off-beat fiction).


bruce felton mark fowler best worst most unusual
In the same category, I treasure The Best, Worst, and Most Unusual. How else would I know that in Hong Kong, cricket fighting (although illegal) is very popular, inspires heavy betting, and has much in common with cockfighting. Or that if you eat bananas, your skin will exude an odor that attracts mosquitoes?


bill bryson books
I’m also a fan of Bill Bryson. I became hooked on Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. His tracing of language evolution actually made me more tolerant of “prioritize” as a replacement for “set priorities”—though I still don’t like it!
Last but far from least, I recommend John McPhee. The first book I read was Coming Into The Country, which left me with a dream of traveling to Alaska—a dream as yet unfulfilled, but hope springs eternal. This man can make anything interesting. As a result of his writing, even I know how Bill Bradley was able to make baskets while facing the opposite end of the court: you just have to have a sense of where you are.


I recommend these non-fiction books and authors to readers for pleasure and to writers for enlightenment!