Tuesday, February 4, 2014

An Appalachian Adventure

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Bill Bryson calls the Appalachian Trail "the grandaddy of long hikes," but for me, this book is the granddaddy of hiking memoirs. I first read it sometime around 1999, and I enjoyed it so much that not only have I reread this multiple times, but it also inspired me to read at least a dozen other hiking adventures. None have matched Bryson's wit. 

Before he started writing long books on various aspects of history, Bryson was known for his entertaining travelogues. "A Walk in the Woods" was his humorous take on attempting a long-distance hike of the Appalachian Trail, which spans more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. Here were his reasons for trying:

"It would get me fit after years of waddlesome sloth. It would be an interesting and reflective way to reacquaint myself with the scale and beauty of my native land after nearly twenty years of living abroad. It would be useful (I wasn't quite sure in what way, but I was sure nonetheless) to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, 'Yeah, I've shit in the woods.'"

And so Bryson plans his trip, gets indignant over the high cost of outdoor equipment, and recruits an old friend, Stephen Katz, to walk the trail with him. Katz, an overweight, out-of-shape, recovering alcoholic, adds much hilarity to the adventure. The first day on the trail, Katz falls behind and has a fit, throwing away a lot of supplies in an effort to lighten the load of his pack. Later he gets lost during a stretch when they were dangerously low on water. But he's so pathetic and funny that you forgive him.

Meanwhile, Bryson was having his own problems that first day:

"It was hell. First days on hiking trips always are. I was hopelessly out of shape -- hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle. The hardest part was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill ... The elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?"

After a few days on the trail, they met another hiker named Mary Ellen, who leeched onto them. 

"She was from Florida, and she was, as Katz forever after termed her in a special tone of awe, a piece of work. She talked nonstop, except when she was clearing out her eustachian tubes (which she did frequently) by pinching her nose and blowing out with a series of violent and alarming snorts of a sort that would make a dog leave the sofa and get under a table in the next room. I have long known that it is part of God's plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth, and Mary Ellen was proof that even in the Appalachian woods I would not be spared."

I'm not going to retype entire pages, but trust me that the conversations with Mary Ellen are one of the highlights of this book. 

Bryson and Katz spend several weeks on the trail, hiking 500 miles in their first section. Then the two take a break and return home for a few weeks, and Bryson resumes with some shorter hikes in New England. Katz and Bryson reunite in Maine to hike a particularly daunting section of the trail called the Hundred Mile Wilderness:

"The Appalachian Trail is the hardest thing I have ever done, and the Maine portion was the hardest part of the Appalachian Trail, and by a factor I couldn't begin to compute."

Exhausted, filthy and hungry, the two abandon their trek in Maine and hitchhike to a small town, where they're able to make their way home again. 

"I have regrets, of course. I regret that I didn't do [Mount] Katahdin (though I will, I promise you, I will). I regret that I never saw a bear or wolf or followed the padding retreat of a giant hellbender salamander, never shooed away a bobcat or sidestepped a rattlesnake, never flushed a startled boar. I wish that just once I had truly stared death in the face (briefly, with a written assurance of survival). But I got a great deal else from the experience. I learned to pitch a tent and sleep beneath the stars. For a brief, proud period I was slender and fit. I gained a profound respect for wilderness and nature and the benign dark power of woods. I understand now, in a way I never did before, the colossal scale of the world. I found patience and fortitude that I didn't know I had. I had discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists ... Best of all, these days when I see a mountain, I look at it slowly and appraisingly, with a narrow, confident gaze and eyes of chipped granite."

One of the things I especially like about this book is the history that Bryson includes along the way. He shares interesting stories about the areas he's passing through and about how the trail was built. He also looks at America's unique relationship with nature, which includes some backwards policies of the U.S. Forest Service and the Parks Service. It's really a delight to read.

This memoir has been criticized because Bryson doesn't hike the entire trail, but regardless of the distance, it's still a damn fine travelogue. This was his experience on the AT, which he shares with much humor and insight. I don't care that he hiked only 870 miles out of 2,100 -- the point was that he attempted it.

Memorial for Mandela

His Day is Done by Maya Angelou
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a moving tribute to Nelson Mandela, who died in December 2013. Maya Angelou wrote a loving poem about Mandela's grace and his influence in the world. The book includes several sepia-toned photographs of Mandela throughout his life, and it makes a beautiful 44-page memorial. 

"His day is done, 
Is done.
The news came on the wings of a wind
Reluctant to carry its burden.
Nelson Mandela's day is done.

The news, expected and still unwelcome,
Reached us in the United States and suddenly
Our world became somber.
Our skies were leadened.
His day is done.

We see you, South African people,
Standing speechless at the slamming 
Of that final door
Through which no traveler returns."

When Mandela was released from prison, Angelou writes that the world was watching "as the hope of Africa sprang through the prison doors." 

"His stupendous heart intact,
His gargantuan will
Hale and hearty.
He had not been crippled by brutes
Nor was his passion for the rights 
Of human beings
Diminished by twenty-seven years of imprisonment.

Even here in America
We felt the cool
Refreshing breeze of freedom
When Nelson Mandela took
The seat of the presidency
In his country
Where formerly he was not even allowed to vote."

My favorite section of the poem is near the end, featuring a photograph of Mandela smiling, and the lines:

"We will not forget you.
We will not dishonor you.
We will remember and be glad
That you lived among us."

The poem and photographs are a lovely tribute, but I think the book would have been improved if it had included a short biography of Mandela. I do plan on reading his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," but I think there was a missed opportunity with Angelou's book in not including a few pages explaining Mandela's extraordinary life.

Giant Monster Renaissance Man: An interview with J.M. Martin

Today's guest is J.M. Martin, one of the head honchos at Ragnarok Publications as well as one of the masterminds behind Kaiju Rising, an anthology of giant monster tales.

You've had an interesting career. What was it like working with Caliber?
It was the most fun I’ve had working for someone. Publisher Gary Reed is a brilliant guy and about the coolest boss one could ask for. I don’t know how many times he bought dinner for me “just because.” And my co-workers were all incredibly cool people, too. We made comic books and toys for a living! It doesn’t get much better than that.

In the beginning we also shared space with Stabur Home Video, a well as McFarlane Toys’ satellite office in Michigan, so there were a couple dozen of us and our jobs crossed over with all three companies; in a typical day I’d sift through art submissions, make some calls, letter some comic pages, work on a video ad, design a logo, answer emails, do a Spawn® promotional piece of the McFarlane Collectors Club, and then at closing time we’d order pizza, Gary would make a beer run, and we’d fire up Age of Empires or Diablo over the network and go to war against one another until dark. We even had an annual softball team. There was great fun and great camaraderie.

It’s neat to see all the talent that started with Caliber and have gone on to even more exposure, folks like David Mack, Brian Michael Bendis, Mike Carey, Tom Sniegoski, Guy Davis, Vincent Locke, Michael Oeming, Philippe Xavier, Michael Gaydos, Joe Pruett, Tim Vigil, Kevin VanHook, Phil Hester, Mike Perkins...we just had a metric frickin’ ton of artists and writers cutting teeth while at Caliber.

Unfortunately, consolidation of the IADD (comic distribution market) put an end to those days, as Diamond bought out the competition and forced exclusivity contracts. Caliber got buried in the Previews catalog, then there was a printing fiasco with a collectible card game that resulted in the loss of huge P.O.’s from mass market retail chains, and basically a slow death ensued after that. Even winning a lawsuit against the printer did very little for us. Fortunately, in this new age of digital publishing and by farming out titles to other publishers, Gary’s been able to resurrect some of Caliber’s titles, so the company lives on in its own way.

What was it like working for Privateer during the d20 boom?
I met Matt Wilson at a comic con in Cincinnati in 1998. Back then he was wanting to get into comics and we agreed to have him do a cover for one of our fantasy titles called Legendlore that I wrote and Philippe Xavier drew. That never came about, but we stayed in touch sporadically over the next couple years. He called me one day around the winter of 2000 and made an offer to come aboard and be part of the Privateer inner circle. I eventually assumed the Managing Editor position and worked for Privateer for four years.

It started out great, lots of creative license and laughs and brainstorming and making cool stuff for gamers—I couldn’t tell you how many contributions I made to the company’s IP—but honestly Matt just went through a personality shift along the way and he became very unapproachable. He ended up driving everyone from the inner circle away—meaning Matt Staroscik, Mike McVey, Brian Snoddy, and myself—because we were the only ones who would still question his direction (I actually wanted to describe him as going “utterly bananas” but my wife said no). You could probably talk to Snoddy for a more interesting take. Anyhow, Privateer continues today thanks to the creations and labors of a lot of good folks who deserve credit and receive none. It’s unfortunate, but one must live and learn.

What's the story behind the formation of Ragnarok Publications?
After two very promising forays in publishing ended unhappily for me, I was pretty burned on publishing in general. I went back to school and became an Occupational Therapy Assistant and went to work in a skilled nursing facility for a while with disabled geriatric patients. That lasted about a year before I realized I needed to get back in publishing. It’s what I truly loved.

What's the story behind Kaiju Rising?
Nick Sharps has become a good friend via our interactions on Facebook, and one night after we had both seen Pacific Rim we started talking Kaiju and, basically, he mused how cool would a Kaiju-inspired anthology be? Nick’s mind works a mile a minute so he likely would have moved on to the next idea, but I told him— having just started up Ragnarok with Tim—that if he could get some actual authors on board, we’d do it. Nick took that as a challenge (don’t ever challenge him to do something unless you’re prepared to have it done) and he immediately went after Jeremy Robinson because he was such a fan of Project Nemesis. Jeremy was unable to fit a story into his schedule, but he did end up doing the foreword for us, plus he got his pal, author Kane Gilmour, aboard. The project snowballed from there as Nick hunted down every author he suspected was also a Kaiju fan and built a pretty impressive lineup.

Of course, we had zero budget for this thing, so Kickstarter became the logical choice. I built the campaign from the ground up, basically going with my gut and plying my Photoshop skills, and after it was over we’d achieved almost 186 percent of goal; some of the authors told us it was one of the best Kickstarter campaigns they’d seen. I laugh because I remember Gini Koch saying, “Gee, if you did that based on intuition alone, imagine what you could achieve if you actually knew what you were doing.”

What's your favorite giant monster story NOT in the book?
Does Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein count? Not giant enough? What about Frankenstein Conquers the World? Yeah, not a great one but as a kid I saw that and the concept stuck with me. I don’t think I’d watch it today. Might ruin my childhood.

As a teen I remember going to a friend’s house and we’d watch all kinds of Godzilla and other Kaiju movies while we played D&D. To be honest, I was always more drawn to the heroic giants like Frankenstein and the the large mechs like Ultraman and Jet Jaguar. That must be why I really dug Pacific Rim.

What else does Ragnarok Publications have in the pipeline?
Kaiju Rising fans will be pleased to know we have another anthology planned for late in the year tentatively called Mech: Age of Steel. It’s a follow up, or companion volume, to Kaiju Rising. We have some excellent commitments to it already, and that’s one where Nick has again handled the bulk of the acquisitions.

We also have a fantasy antho planned for this summer called Rogue: Assassins, Mercenaries, Thieves, with our lineup pretty much set for that. We’ll be announcing more details soon, but I can tell you that Mark Lawrence has already turned in a story that ties into his Broken Empire trilogy. We’re also doing this one as a co-publishing venture with Roger Bellini’s company, Neverland Books.

What author would you most like to work with for a future Ragnarok publication?
That’s a toughie because we already have so many great authors lined up, like Mercedes Yardley, who is amazing, and Kenny Soward, who is Master of Gnomes and writes epic fantasy, Seth Skorkowsky’s “Valducan” series is exciting, and recently we picked up Timothy Baker’s “Hungry Ghosts.” Ragnarok’s reputation is also growing and the word’s getting out about how author-friendly we are, so we’ve been able to attract traditionally-published authors like Django Wexler, too (and we’re speaking to another).

So, getting back to your question, I say ALL THE AUTHORS! Hah. For me, personally, I’d like to time travel a few years back and work with David Gemmell. He’s the author who has probably influenced me the most, other than my childhood idols of Tolkien, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lloyd Alexander, and Stan “The Man” Lee.

As an editor, what advice would you give to fledgling writers?
Make your manuscripts lean and mean. Analyze every adverb. Don’t info dump. Show, don’t tell. Read lots. And remember to vary your sentence lengths. Good writing should flow and have a pleasing melody. Read your work aloud. And bear in mind, especially self-publishers, that a good editor is crucial. I think self-publishing is getting much better these days, though. The good stuff’s rising to the top.

Also, stay on target. If you’re going after a traditional publisher and/or agent, rejection is part and parcel. Don’t let it discourage you. Keep at it, and use social media to your advantage (without being a pest or a total weirdo stalker creeper).

When Kaiju Rising ushers in a giant monster renaissance and you are crowned emperor of the world, what city will bear your wrath first and with which giant monster?
As emperor, my first order of business would be to unleash the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man on Mogadishu in Somalia. That place is a real mess and could use a nice slathering of confectionary retribution. Perhaps a massive blast of sugary corn syrup will defuse all the hardcore militants. I just want peace...and lots of candy. And I’m betting, deep down, that’s all they really want, too.


Wool Omnibus (Silo, #1) (Wool, #1-5)Wool Omnibus (Silo, #1) by Hugh Howey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the old sheriff of the Silo dies, Juliette, a Mechanic, is thrust into the role and quickly finds herself in over her head after asking the wrong questions. What will she discover when she's cast out of the Silo into the toxic world beyond and left for dead?

Yeah, that's not a great summary but there's a lot I don't want to spoil.

Since I've become more and more interested in the idea of Kindle publishing as of late, I decided to check out Wool, one of the juggernauts of self-publishing. While I heard the title (and thought it was stupid), I went in cold and was pleasantly surprised.

Wool takes place in a dystopian future where what's left of humanity lives in a Silo underground, levels upon levels of apartments, farms, mines, machinery, a self contained community. People who commit certain offenses are sent out to Clean, to clear the grit off the sensors providing the residents a view of the outside, before dying in the nuclear wasteland.

Juliette, the protagonist of parts 2-5, is a fantastic character. Her logical mind, honed from years of repairing ancient machines, quickly has her asking all sorts of questions about the history of the Silo and the possibility of life beyond. Her relationship with Lukas was believable and not at all sappy.

The book reminds me of old school science fiction, exploring ideas about control, conformity, and manipulation. When Juliette and company figure out what's been going on for two hundred years, the manure hits the windmill.

The writing was understated but still good. It's several notches above what you'd expect in a self-published book and probably a notch or two above some Big Six publishing house efforts lately. Is it deserving of the massive hype it gets? Probably not but it's still good. I think the "little guy done good" aspect of Howey's success gives it a little more punch in some people's eyes.

A few minor things bugged me, most related to pace and how readily some of the people revolted. Also, I wouldn't have minded a little more of Silo 17 in the epilogue. Still, it has some strong scenes in it. Juliette running out of air was a pretty powerful scene and will stick with me for a long time.

Wool should appeal to old school science fiction fans and dystopia fans alike. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

View all my reviews