Two Tales of the Woods

Monday, March 20, 2017


Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail, Suzanne Roberts, 2012
Girl in the Woods: A Memoir, Aspen Matis, 2015

A few years back, I read an intriguing excerpt from a book that was just then coming out, a memoir about a woman hiking alone. I picked it up from the New York Public Library, almost on a whim, and adored it.

That book was Wild by Cheryl Strayed and at this point, I've read it twice and seen the movie. It lead me to occasionally seek out other memoirs on similar themes, although until now, I haven't written about any of them here.

Neither of these books was as brilliant as Wild, but they were both good. Both have themes of female empowerment and the grounded, centered feeling that can come from self-reliance in the wilderness.

Almost Somewhere is the simpler and less emotionally impactful of the two. It is based on the diary and memory of the author, who hiked the John Muir Trail with two friends after college. The three young women begin the journey not quite at odds, but not as equals. After they shed some male hangers-on, the author describes her personal journey - she begins to realize how much useless energy she was spending competing with other women and seeking male attention.

Girl in the Woods is a much more personal and emotional story. The author was raped in college and treated callously by the officials who should have protected her. This leads her to other self-destructive behaviors and finally, she drops out of school. She hikes the entire Pacific Crest Trail alone to reconnect with her body and her self - to overcome a lifetime of extremely dysfunctional behavior from her parents and heal her spirit. She is ill-prepared and faces starvation and injury, but finds the wholeness and self-forgiveness she needs.

Both authors were inspired heavily by the writing of John Muir and his descriptions of the Pacific wilderness. Both authors also address to some extent the unfairness of loving Muir's vision while being a woman - that although going alone into the wilderness to be one with the world is something both greatly desire, they each have to reconcile that with the danger posed, not by the wilderness, but by men.

Roberts talks about feeling most in danger on the edge of civilization and feeling a sense of relief after returning to the trail after being near towns and roads. Matis recounts sexual rumors spread about her by male hikers and the lies and half-truths she told about why she was hiking. She eventually finds one long-term relationship while on the trail.

A lot of the last part of her story concerns this relationship, but then it's left in a vague place, which is narratively unsatisfying. I was curious enough to google the author, and I found out that her marriage fell apart between when she sold the premise of the book to her publisher and when it was finished. I'm impressed that she was able to convey the beginning of this relationship so beautifully, given that fact, but it did mean that aspects of the ending felt a little odd.

Almost Somewhere: 3 Stars
Girl in the Woods: 4 Stars

Between the World and Me

Monday, March 13, 2017

Between the World and Me
Ta-Nehisi Coates, 2015

Premise: This blend of memoir, academic treatise, and cultural theory takes the form of a letter from Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son.

Read this book.

It's not very long, but it might take you a while. If you, like me, stop to savor the language, to let the ideas sink in, to sit with the truths and the history, it might take you a while.

Coates recounts his personal history of striving to understand and survive being black in America: from the fear behind teenage street-corner bluster to his discovery of great voices to follow to learning the breadth of black experience at Howard University to becoming a parent.

Around every corner he finds a new nuance, and every page is full of the kind of wisdom that comes from a combination of alert observation of lived experience and directed, intelligent study.

It's both emotional and academic, unflinching in criticism of the racist systems and attitudes that maintain American society while telling a personal story of searching for truth and meaning.

Read this book.

Read it particularly if you live in America. Read it particularly if you, like me, check the "White" box on the form.

5 Stars - A Goddamn Masterpiece.

If I Was Your Girl

Monday, March 6, 2017


If I Was Your Girl
Meredith Russo, 2016

Premise: Amanda is starting a new school year in a new town. She can't live with her mom safely anymore, not around kids who knew her before. She only hopes that she'll be able to get through high school without her new friends finding out her secret.

This novel got a lot of love last year, and it deserves it. Amanda's story is both a touching, puppy-love, YA romance and a story of depression, attempted self-harm and assault, as well as about the love of both family and found family.

It's compelling and an easy read. I think I flew through it in under a day. Amanda's pain and paranoia, followed by hope and tentative trust only to have the rug cruelly pulled out from under her -- it's easy to be swept up in this tale.

The supporting characters are a wide range of small-town types, very few of whom are who they first appear to be. Everyone has secrets, but not everyone is in danger when their secrets are told.

One of the most important parts of the book, though, is after the end of the story. The author's note is important here, asking us to empathize, but not extrapolate.

In the words of a wise woman I know - When you've met one trans person, you've met one trans person. Amanda's situation is her own, and the author describes the choices she made in telling the story so that her main character would be the most sympathetic to the most readers. She cautions readers not to assume that everyone's story is the same.

Much like the situation for the characters in the story, reading the book is the start of a journey of understanding, not the end.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book