Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson

When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about the fearsome out-of-doors, I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake. (4)

After returning to the United States after 20 years of living in the UK, author Bill Bryson decided to reconnect with his homelands by hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,100 trek that spans from Georgia to Maine. His unlikely companion is Katz, an old college friend, who knows even less about hiking than Bryson. A Walk in the Woods begins with the pair buying gear they know nothing about and set out into the Georgia wilderness on a snowy March day.

Their limited experience makes for an exciting travelogue that feels like it could be you or me out there in the wilds. Though Bryson describes the harshness of the hike, there's still a certain appeal of the trail that he conveys. Bryson's skill at weaving in trail and local history at the beginning of chapters take the memoir outside of his experience to make larger statements about the environmental, political, and social problems that affect the trail. The way he relates the history of the trail is just as captivating as the prose about his personal experiences.

The people they encounter on and around the trail are just as unique as the trail itself. Bryson's characterization reads like a caricature, focusing on a characteristic, but in a way that somehow still makes them makes them distinct, relatable, and, above all, entertaining. Often, the main feature of a person they meet is the particular way in which they annoy Bryson and Katz, whether its by being over enthusiastic while discussing hiking gear, being inconsiderate when sharing a shelter, or taking incessantly.

For the first half of the book, these factual interludes flow nicely with the day-to-day experiences of hiking on the trail, from Katz hilariously throwing gear over a cliff to make his pack lighter to the abundant excitement they express at coming to a town where they can sleep in a real bed and eat something other than noodles. 

The book is very enjoyable, until part two begins. Part one ends with Bryson and Katz getting off the trail and agreeing to meet up later in the summer to hike another part of it. In part two, Bryson details day hikes he does in between and then finishes with his second week-long hike with Katz. the second half of the book the ratio of personal to factual  is quite different, leaving the story line of Bryson's hiking muddled and disjointed. 

As a non-hiker with interest in, but limited knowledge of, hiking trails and wilderness adventures, I enjoyed the book overall. For the first half, I couldn't put the book down without reading one more day of their trek. The second half was nowhere near as compelling, but a suspenseful ending makes it all worthwhile anyway. 

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.  The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.

About the Author:

Bill Bryson’s bestselling books include A Walk in the Woods, Notes from a Small Island, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, In a Sunburned Country, A Short History of Nearly Everything (which earned him the 2004 Aventis Prize), The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, At Home, and One Summer. He lives in England with his wife.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review: "Choose Your Own Autobiography" by Neil Patrick Harris

The unique "choose your own adventure"-style autobiography could only be pulled off by someone with a great sense of humor or a magician, and it so happens that Neil Patrick Harris is both of these things. The entire autobiography is written in second person, so it tries to put you in Neil's shoes, as though you are getting to experience his life. Most chapters are on the shorter side, ending with choices that either continue the story along the same theme or timeline, or could take you someplace completely different. You can choose to read through all of his acting experiences (Doogie Howser, How I Met Your Mother, Broadway shows), his interest in magic and performing as a magician, his personal life from growing up to raising two kids of his own, or skip around and get a little of each.

I found the experience of skipping around NPH's life non-chronologically both rewarding and frustrating. I really enjoyed it the first two times I went through because I really wanted to hear about how he got in to magic so I read those first, and went back for his acting and family life afterwards. After "finishing" the adventure a second time, there were still a lot of passages I had missed. I suppose if you were able to put it aside and read it again a year later or so, you might get different pieces of his life, but I wanted to finish it all in one go. I ended up flipping through and reading the passages I had missed, which were quite a few! That part wasn't as much fun.

There are a few chapters that are completely made up, such as if you were to make the choice to have a horrible childhood. There's also a running gag where several outcomes bring you to a tragic end in a similar way where only the small details have changed, and though you are almost saved, ultimately "Your body is never found." These probably only make up about 15 pages of the 300-page book and are funny, though it was my least favorite part of the book.

All things considered, I really enjoyed Neil Patrick Harris' Choose Your Own Autobiography. The stories he included were all interesting, whether I was familiar with the show he talked about acting in or not. There's not a lot of information on any one thing, but there's a little information on everything it seems. If you're looking to read 30+ pages just about his time on How I Met Your Mother, you'll be disappointed. But if you want to know a bit about that and appreciate some Barney jokes throughout, this book is for you. This autobiography has it all - even recipes, a crossword puzzle, and a hidden signature page (shh).

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.  The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.