Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood by Gary Paulsen

I had not thought of Gary Paulsen in years, until I saw the Shelf Awareness review of this new book. (Hat tip to my colleague Jen Forbus for that review.) Paulsen might have been the first author I really fixated on; I remember setting out to own all his books, and while I didn’t get very far (maybe six or eight of them), I’m pretty sure I wrote “Julie’s Gary Paulsen library” or some such inside the cover of each one, and had them set up on their own little shelf. Early signs of something, there. My favorite was Hatchet, of course, and its sequel; and I vividly remember a scene from the beginning of another book where the narrator watches a… chipmunk? eating another creature, blood down its front… what book was that?

Anyway – when I saw that he’s returned with a memoir of his own childhood, I was sold. And let me tell you. This book had me entranced from the opening lines. I wept.

Gone to the Woods has an innocence and a simplicity built into its writing style and the value system, I think, of its narrator. This makes it accessible to younger readers, but not at all to them alone. I think this is a memoir for everyone. Paulsen tells his story in the third person, calling his protagonist only ‘the boy,’ although the name ‘Gary’ is used once or twice by other characters. This helps to give the boy an elemental quality, like he’s sort of an archetypal boy, although his story is very specific. When the book opens, he is five years old, living in Chicago with his mother in 1944. She has a factory job, and coming from a small farm in northern Minnesota, is “not even remotely prepared to resist the temptations of the big city.” She lives in the bars and does not parent her small son, who she’s trained to perform for the men who try to win her favor. Grandmother hears of this lifestyle and is “critical, then concerned, and finally… past horrified and well into scandalized.” Her solution colors the boy’s method of problem-solving for life: “If it doesn’t work Here, go over There.”

The first adventure of the book, then, is the five-year-old boy’s solo journey by train from Chicago to International Falls, Minnesota. This takes several days and involves a train absolutely jam-packed with severely injured soldiers, smelling of and oozing pain and death, so that the boy is physically ill from it all – because didn’t I say, his father, who he’s never met, is a soldier off in the war. The boy becomes stuck in a train toilet, among other things, and observes out the train window the woods that will become his sanctuary. By the time he arrives at his aunt and uncle’s farm he is wrung out with exhaustion, trauma, and confusion. But the farm will be a perfect place for him, the first place he feels he belongs, is valued, is taught. He’s given his own room and bed. It’s lovely. Then it’s taken away from him.

I’ll stop summarizing here. The boy’s upbringing is one trauma after another, including a few years on the streets of American-occupied Manila, and a continuing absence of parental concern. I appreciate that the narrator is slow to judge his parents, and I think it would have been easy (narratively speaking) to be ugly about the mother’s drinking and many boyfriends, for example, but neither the young boy nor the adult man who writes these lines takes that easy road. (At least until the teenager’s perspective, at which point he thinks of both parents as vipers. But this is about the damage they do to him, rather than some puritanical judgment of mom’s moral choices.) He is an unjudgmental creature in general. Paulsen is wonderfully good at the innocent child’s perspective, elements of which are present in the teenager too.

Trauma after trauma, but with a few bright points, like the aunt and uncle in the Minnesota woods, and a saintly librarian when he is thirteen years old who makes him a gift of notebook and pencil, for whom this book might be considered a gift in return. And the woods and rivers and streams, which are always a bright point. From age five, the boy learns that the woods will allow him to take care of himself, even when he lives in a city again, keeping to the alleys and nights to avoid bullies, and escaping to the stream where he can fish for food or shoot squirrels and rabbits when his parents fail to provide for him. Even in Manila, a city of a certain sort of trauma (truly, the violence and death this child witnesses by his sixth birthday is unfathomable), he finds beauty and human kindness.

At times the events were hard for me to take in, and I wondered if younger readers were really the right audience for this. But on reflection, I think Paulsen offers just enough. I think children might take away what they need from this book – I’m no proponent of censoring life’s pains from kids – and it’s the adult mind and perspective that makes it even harder to read, if that makes sense.

The story is harrowing but also lovely, always riveting, and an important testimonial from a generation that we will eventually lose access to. It is excruciatingly beautiful in how it’s told. The immediacy of traveling with the boy is heart-rending and direct. I can’t imagine how this book could be improved upon.


Rating: 10 willow branches.

The Oak Papers by James Canton

These tender ruminations on oak trees, connections and possibilities will appeal to nature lovers, philosophers and seekers.

James Canton (Ancient Wonderings; Out of Essex) spends hours, days, months and years with one particular oak tree. Moved by its power and continually fascinated by its individuality, Canton undertook a study of the connection between oaks and people. After consulting history, mythology, spirituality, science, a number of individual woodmen and -women, and more time spent in the company of oaks, he offers The Oak Papers, part personal reflection and part research project.

The Honywood Oak, at the Marks Hall Estate near London, draws Canton in. During a period of personal turmoil, he finds himself sitting under this massive 800-year-old tree, “a mere sapling when the Magna Carta was signed.” He watches birds and insects and hares, and the changing seasons; he finds himself returning just to spend time with the Honywood Oak: “I sit on the bench and wonder a duality of desires: to care for the oak and to be cared for by the oak.” He feels a healing effect. Canton’s more purposeful studies begin in the company of the estate’s “curator of trees,” and in his readings: Dante, T.S. Eliot, Pliny, Shakespeare, Woolf, Thomas Hardy, Gary Snyder and the legends of Druids and Green Men (and Green Women and Children). He gets to know the Honywood Oak in its fine details, and then individuals he calls the Field Oak and the Stag-Headed Oak. He meets with Stephen Taylor to discuss his Oak, a collection of dozens of paintings of the same tree.

“A few more leaves have turned to paler autumn shades like the grey hairs on a father not seen for months.” The Oak Papers is meticulous and dense with detailed observations not only of oaks–the seasonal variations in their leaves, buds and acorns–but of the lives they support: heron, treecreeper, wren, goldcrest, buzzard, stiletto fly, wood butterfly, mosses, lichen, hare, gall wasp. The bulk of these papers sees Canton sitting and watching, although he also recounts visits with people who know oaks well: artists and craftspeople who work with wood, spiritual thinkers, a psychologist who specializes in nature therapies. He lovingly concludes that “there are many paths to seeking the truths about oaks,” that “we all become better beings when we step back into the woods.”

Canton meditates on oaks while sitting in oaks, seeking greater understanding or to become the oak. He does not reach a conclusion by the end of these pages, but he gets closer.


This review originally ran in the February 5, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 details.

A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears by Bjorn Dihle

A lifelong Alaskan inspires awe with his beautifully written, expert portrait of the grizzly bear.

Bjorn Dihle was born and raised in the outdoors of Alaska, where he has worked for years as a brown (or grizzly) bear viewing guide. A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears is his lovely, thoughtful study on the relationship between humans and this evocative, storied species.

“There have been times I almost hated bears,” he writes. “Like most feelings of hostility, mine were rooted in fear. Yet, there is no place I love more than grizzly country, and no animal has intrigued and challenged me more than the bear.” Moving around in time, Dihle tells his own stories of encounters, from the first brown bear he ever saw–a carcass in a salmon stream when the author was four or five years old–through early trailside meetings and learning how to relate to bears, into his career seeking them out, especially on Alaska’s Admiralty Island. “There’s no way to make bears safe,” Dihle acknowledges, which is surely part of their appeal. But there are measures, such as Larry Aumiller’s “concept of habituation, which he defined as taking away the fight-or-flight response in a bear, that’s key for developing trust between our two species.”

A Shape in the Dark is an appealing, accessible memoir and a history of the interplay of bears and humans in the American West. Dihle intersperses his own and his friends’ bear encounters with those of Grizzly Adams and Teddy Roosevelt, outlining the evolution of attitudes and policy toward grizzlies. In considering the writings of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, he reviews the history of wilderness thinking beyond bears, with a ruminative style and personal perspective. He writes of famous and less famous maulings, the complexities of bear hunting, the role of grizzly bears in native cultures and the impact of climate change on Alaska and its greatest predator.

Dihle’s title hints at something elemental about our fears and the way he handles them: “After a while, much like our ancestors who’d built fires to keep away the monsters, I opened my laptop and stared at the lit-up screen, hoping the words would come.” As his subtitle suggests, Dihle deals with life and death in balanced proportions, portraying the deaths of bears and humans with similar reverence.

Quiet, meditative, wise, well informed, A Shape in the Dark is memoir, history and philosophy in one: “everything leaves a trail, whether it’s imprinted in the land, in the narratives we tell, or even in our blood.” Dihle’s love for his subject is contagious and beautifully conveyed.


This review originally ran in the February 4, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 wigeons.

Into the Heartless Wood by Joanna Ruth Meyer

I don’t think Father’s wall can keep the trees out if they really want to come in.”

What a delightful story. Props to my colleague at Shelf Awareness, Lana Barnes, whose review sold me this book. As I’ve done once before (and with another YA novel!), I’m reposting Barnes’s words here for you.

This dark fairy tale weaves together magic, romance and nature with lyrical words and imagery.

Into the Heartless Wood is an intense and haunting fairy tale tinged with horror, romance and magic, and filled with beautiful imagery of nature and love.

The Gwydden’s Wood is ruled by a witch who uses her eight tree-siren daughters as weapons, “commanding them to sing, to lure men and women into the wood and devour them.” Seventeen-year-old Owen and his sister stumble to the precipice of this fate, but are saved by the Gwydden’s youngest daughter, Seren. After his rescue, Owen–intrigued by the “monster” who defies her purpose of being–visits Seren in the forest every night. Their forbidden friendship blossoms into romance, and Seren’s desire to “be more than the monster [her] mother created” grows. When secrets and an ancient curse drive Owen and Seren apart, they find themselves on opposite sides of a centuries-old feud and must find a way to break the curse to free themselves.

This fourth YA novel by Joanna Ruth Meyer (Echo North) is gorgeously written, deeply intense and emotionally fulfilling. Owen’s and Seren’s story is portrayed vividly through a series of moments of euphoria and heartbreak. Whether it’s a scene of them dancing on a hilltop until dawn or a tree-siren-caused train derailment, Meyer uses poetic language and imagery to ratchet up the intensity. Meyer also uses a blend of prose (Owen) and verse (Seren) to parallel Seren’s transformation. As Seren becomes more humanlike, her short lines and simple sentences become more complex. This all creates an atmospheric fairy tale that is bewitching and unforgettable.

Lana Barnes, freelance reviewer and proofreader

I would add that Seren doesn’t have a name – because monsters don’t – until Owen offers her one. He is the son of a musician (his mother) and an astronomer (his father), both loves he has inherited, but it is astronomy that he excels at and dreams of; the name he offers to his new friend means ‘star.’ Seren’s adoption of that name, offered by her first friend, is meaningful, because names have great power; to name something or someone is to exercise power over it, and imagine the power to name yourself when no one ever has.

The setting is Welsh, or at least Welsh-adjacent: it is just a minor frame, but Owen’s cooking is Welsh, and the character’s names often look it as well. I found this charming, and it added a little bit to the otherworldly feeling of the novel.

I loved the dreaminess of this book, especially in Seren’s sections. I loved the difference in writing (speaking?) style between the two protagonists, as Barnes notes, and how that changed the tone I heard the story told in, and characterized each of them. And I love trees – or leaves – and stars as reference points for worldviews, as symbols. The romance in this book is sweet, innocent, muted – definitely YA – but moving. There really is something about young love, or in this case such youth that it doesn’t even recognize that it is love. The classic narrative trick is to put two people (or beings!) in an attraction but then throw something in their way; the conflict here is across worlds, and with the added challenge of a shared history, Owen and Seren on two sides of an old strife. (I shan’t spoil it, but they are not only opposed in the world-scale struggle between powers but also share a personal connection to certain events.) The obstacles they face are great. But out of great conflicts come great stories. This is a great story: emotionally impactful, heart-wrenching, sweet, beautifully told (with extra points for style, in the two very different voices). I’m charmed. Also bonus points for trees.


Rating: 8 slices of bara brith.

The World of the Woodchuck by W. J. Schoonmaker

I come from a place without woodchucks (or groundhogs, or whistlepigs, or whatever you prefer to call them). Now I live in a place where I get to watch them root and run around and sun themselves from my office window, or on dog walks. This is an exciting novelty for me. I’ve been looking for a book to learn more about these funny, personable little creatures, and I’ve been having kind of a hard time, but I did finally find this 1966 publication, The World of the Woodchuck (part of a series, A Living World Books, from J. B. Lippincott).

It’s a fairly simple collection of naturalist knowledge about woodchucks, part of the family Sciuridae (tree squirrels, ground squirrels, flying squirrels), genus Marmota, group monax. (My local species is the Marmota monax monax, or Maryland woodchuck.) W.J. Schoonmaker (zoologist, photographer, illustrator, educator, and lifelong resident of New York state) compiles all the information he can find in chapters titled “Meet the Woodchuck,” each of the four seasons, “Relation to Man and Other Animals,” and more. His writing style is mostly straightforward, a comprehensive catalog of stories and facts from his own considerable observation of woodchucks (and other animals) and the work of other naturalists and farmers, hunters and friends. He has a clear affection for his subject, when he describes them smiling and showing fear and love, or telling stories like the “comedy” of a black dachshund that chased a woodchuck and then got chased in turn.

I am left with a similar affection for Schoonmaker, who can be unintentionally funny (noting that three chucks he found with overgrown incisors were each “alive when killed”). The book is definitely dated in its language and style, and perhaps in its emphasis on the question of whether wild animals are useful to humans in terms of hunting, farming, and recreation – we have only partially moved past that perspective, but this does feel like the perspective of an earlier era in ecology. However, Schoonmaker observes, “It is believed that every plant and animal fits somewhere in the great plan of Nature, and the woodchuck definitely occupies an ecological niche in this scheme.” I can’t say if the body of knowledge about woodchucks has expanded since this book was published, but I have been looking in vain for more to read about them, so The World of the Woodchuck may remain the authoritative monograph on this subject. I learned a fair amount. The chambers of a woodchuck burrow adhere to dimensions with variation of only an inch or so between individuals (even individuals of different sizes). Woodchucks can climb trees, and they both ascend and descend headfirst. They hibernate in winter (I last observed my across-the-street neighbor on November 10, which is kind of late – we had a warm fall here). They are herbivores, and playful as puppies when they’re young, although they have to spend a lot of time eating and thus less time playing than a puppy does – it takes a lot of eating to prepare for hibernation on the caloric content of alfalfa and clover. They can eat a third of their weight at a time.

This book is no great work of research or fine writing, but it gave me what I needed, with a charming authorial voice and plenty of pictures. I’m glad I found it.


Rating: 7 accounts of the courage of woodchucks.

movie: The Dark Divide (2020)

Click that beautiful image to enlarge. Go ahead. Isn’t it lovely?

This film is definitely visually pleasing, but that’s not all it has to offer. The Dark Divide is based on a Robert Michael Pyle book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. I have not read this book, but I have it on my shelf, and I know that I appreciate Bob Pyle’s writing. (Small disclosure, I guess: I’ve met Bob a few times.) A film based on a memoir by a writer I admire is always a solid bet. Plus, a small part is played by somebody else I admire.

Patterson Hood is more or less as niche as Bob Pyle, I guess, and it’s just downright fun that they’ve ended up in a project together, certainly in part because Patterson now lives in the same Pacific Northwest region. At any rate, this was enough to bring me in.

The story is this. Bob Pyle is an academic, lepidopterist and writer, portrayed here as pretty bumbling and goofy. His beloved wife Thea is dying of cancer, and his colleagues are ribbing him about this great butterfly hunting expedition he talks about but never undertakes. Shortly after losing Thea, he gets a grant from the Guggenheim to actually do it: hike from route 12 in southern Washington state, over Mt. Adams to the Columbia Gorge, seeking butterflies (and moths) along the way. It’s intended to be a 30-day trip. “You’ve been camping before, right?” ask Bob’s colleagues. “Cub scouts, or…?” They’re being a little mean, actually, especially in light of the Thea situation, but the viewer has to admit that Bob is unconvincing as a backcountry hiker. (Because I barely-a-little-bit know Bob, and like him, I was a little sorry to see him made fun of. But then, he wrote the book.)

The film follows Bob’s hike through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (aka the dark divide), with flashbacks to life with Thea. There is not a ton of dialog, because for much of the time Bob is alone. He talks to himself a little (less than one might expect), and he occasionally meets with other humans, although this rarely turns out to be a good thing. As a ranger tells him when he asks about Bigfoot: “If you were one of them, wouldn’t you hide from us? I know I would.”

It’s a charmingly simple story. Beautiful scenery, elemental challenges (bear, food, water, weather, gravity at cliff’s edge), stark human grief, scant dialog. Look at these stunning views, consider the horror of losing one’s life partner. See the rare endangered species, howl for help from the bottom of a cave. An encounter with a crew of loggers encapsulates some conflicts – a bit simplified, but effective. There are some logical or factual goofs, like the fact that Bob seems to carry a solitary quart-sized water bottle (Nalgene, of course), and we never see him refill it (except when the rangers do so for him). But this isn’t meant to be hyperrealism, nor a how-to-backpack guide (seriously, don’t use this movie as a how-to).

Visually stunning, thoughtful, poignant, funny, honest, and a decent introduction to the Bob Pyle character. Recommended.


Rating: 8 hoots.

Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays by Robert Michael Pyle

Collected essays arguing for nature as a unified matrix serve as an excellent introduction to the work of this veteran writer, or a continuing pleasure for readers in the know.

After decades of writing and naturalist study, Robert Michael Pyle (Wintergreen; Where Bigfoot Walks) thoughtfully collects essays on a theme in Nature Matrix: New and Selected Essays. He conceives of a single, interconnected whole, not a binary of natural and non-natural worlds, but an organism of which humans are an inextricable (if often unaware) part. He explores the “extinction of experience” that threatens our future, defines his religion as “Alltheism” (with nods to Darwin, Muir and Kurt Cobain) and envisions wilderness as a continuum, with some version of the wild existing in every vacant lot and on every street corner. The introduction, “Pyrex, Postcards, and Panzers,” makes the point nicely: it took both pretty pictures and tanks to teach the author about the interrelatedness of the natural world–which is to say, simply, the world.

With 24 books to his credit and having studied, written, lived and taught all over the world, Pyle has a broad and rich body of work to draw on for this collection, first conceived of (by this title) in the late 1960s. Nature Matrix as published in 2020 may contain different essays than 1970’s would have, but the principle remains faithful. These 15 essays (ranging back to 1969, five of them previously unpublished) cover classic Pyle territory: butterflies, conservation, quiet appreciation of the outdoors.

Also included are a profile of John Jacob Astor I and arguments for reading hardcopy books rather than screens and for Bright Lights, Big City as an “elegant ethology of one species of upright hominoid ape under the influence of one species of plant in the contemporary canyonlands.” Nabokov is a recurring character (for his literary and visual arts and his lepidoptery), alongside “the High Line Canal, an irrigation ditch coursing the altitudinal contours across the landscapes of Greater Denver, carrying Platte River water from its mouth at the edge of the Rockies out onto the plains near the present Denver International Airport,” where the author as a child first learned to observe and love the details of the natural world.

Pyle’s voice varies from cantankerous to droll, awe-filled to academic; his characters and fascinations are equally wide-ranging. After all this, “In some ways am I right back where I started: fascinated by a stump on the corner.” It is the persistent note of wonder as much as his impressive depth of knowledge and passion that makes Nature Matrix a remarkable addition to Pyle’s life’s work.


This review originally ran in the August 27, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 twitchers.

World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, illustrated by Fumi Nakamura

World of Wonders is a lovely, thoughtful series of meditations, charmingly illustrated, with love and awe on every page but never shying away from the prickliness of life.

Poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil (Oceanic) stuns with her nonfiction debut, World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, delightfully illustrated by Fumi Nakamura. These essays explore the natural world and the human experience, finding parallels, meaning and beauty in the intersections.

“A catalpa can give two brown girls in western Kansas a green umbrella from the sun,” Nezhukumatathil begins. This is an apt and representative line: place-specific, beautifully phrased, with reference to some of the identities these essays will explore. They are mostly titled for the plants and creatures they center–peacock, comb jelly, narwhal, dancing frog–with a few exceptions, such as the expressively named “Questions While Searching for Birds with My Half-White Sons, Aged Six and Nine, National Audubon Bird Count Day in Oxford, MS.” The red-spotted newt and dragon fruit that title their respective essays receive Nezhukumatathil’s attentive study and yes, wonder, but the author’s own experience is always a second thread. She brings a poet’s ear for language and an eye for commonality and metaphor, both reverent of the natural world and specific in her personal story.

Fireflies, touch-me-nots and flamingoes offer her a way to talk about being a brown girl in a white man’s world, growing up in the era of Stranger Danger and feeling disjointed between continents. A young Aimee is asked to draw an animal for a class assignment in Phoenix, Ariz. She responds with a resplendent peacock, India’s national bird, but is chastised and asked for an American bird. Her bald eagle wins a prize but causes her shame. Fumi Nakamura’s accompanying illustrations are whimsical and warm–who doesn’t love an axolotl’s smile?–and sweetly complement Nezhukumatathil’s prose.

World of Wonders offers a series of brief naturalist lessons, but is perhaps at its best in drawing connections, as between the axolotl’s smile and what to do “if a white girl tries to tell you what your brown skin can and cannot wear for makeup.” When it goes boom, “the cassowary is still trying to tell us something.” “And just like the potoo, who is rewarded for her stillness by having her lunch practically fly right to her mouth–perhaps you could try a little tranquility, find a little tenderness in your quiet. Who knows what feathered gifts await?” Wisdom, wonder and beauty make this slim collection one to treasure.


This review originally ran in the August 11, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 9 pale berries growing in spite of the dark.

Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea by Steven Callahan

This book came recommended by one of my favorite faithful readers here at the blog, so I’m sorry to say I’m not an unqualified fan.

Adrift is a memoir of survival. Steven Callahan is a lifelong sailor, and from boyhood had wanted to sail across the Atlantic, which he eventually managed to do in his late twenties in a 21-foot sailboat of his own design and build. Her name is Napoleon Solo, and with a friend, Callahan sails her from New England to old England. Here the friend flies home and Callahan putters south with another short-term crew member; they part at the Spanish island of Tenerife. Callahan sets out alone for Antigua, and it is in this second attempted Atlantic crossing that things go wrong. The subtitle gives the briefest summary. Callahan spends the 76 days in an inflatable raft with few and meager tools, whose accelerating failures require increasingly creative solutions, even as the man’s body and mind self-cannibalize and break down.

For one thing, this book is interesting in that it is both suspenseful and riveting, and spoiled from the beginning: that Callahan got to write the book (never mind that subtitle) gives away the ending. In fact, the subtitle’s specificity gives away yet more. As I read the log, I see we’re in day 41 and know we’re nowhere near done. I was nevertheless absorbed by the story. It’s hard to say to what extent I enjoyed this read; I was often frustrated, but always reluctant to close the book and walk away.

I think I might have been more able to enjoy the story if I’d better understood the practical aspects of it. Sometimes Callahan throws out terms or processes unconcernedly that are meaningless to me. Sometimes he tries to explain but entirely passes me by – which may be as much on me as it is on him; certainly I don’t know my way around a boat, and mechanical intelligence is not a strength of mine. He includes some diagrams and step-by-step explications that so entirely passed me by that I started skipping them, as trying and failing to understand only irritated me. That said, giving up on the details still left me able to follow the life-and-death struggle.

Callahan conceives of himself as operating in three parts: physical, emotional, and rational. Especially as he starts to really lose it (with fatigue, starvation and dehydration, frustration, sleep deprivation, and the general crazy-making of his situation), these parts become a chorus of arguing voices in his head. There is a philosophical, if not meta-physical, thread to the story: will to live versus peace with death, and how people suffer and work through experiences like this. I suspect such a story is one of the hardest things to write, to communicate such profundities… and so if I say he didn’t do an entirely convincing job of it, I mean that as mild criticism. Certainly I’ve never lived through anything like this, nor tried to write it, and I can’t imagine I’d do any better.

The story was undoubtedly compelling. I didn’t want to stop reading. And yet I felt a certain impatience, too. It’s strange to say, but the events of these 76 days, while they included much variation, were also much of the same over and over. Much minutia of patching holes and reconfiguring a speargun, but on the other hand, just the ocean: “that torn blue desert,” he calls it, with dorados and flying fish and triggerfish and calm weather or angry weather, hot days and cold nights. Possibly this could have been done in fewer than 238 pages to better effect. (That’s a major decision to be made with a book like this: degree of detail; pacing.) Maybe I’m not the ideal reader of this book, or not at the ideal time. When I think about survival-in-nature stories, I think of Krakauer first, of course; Into Thin Air remains the pinnacle for me, in memory, with Into the Wild a close second. (Both of these, apparently, pre-blog. And what would I think of them if I reread them now?) Stories this elemental must be among the hardest to get right. Isn’t this kind of survival narrative the definition of ineffable?

Interesting in its own ways, and demands to be finished (no question of a did-not-finish here), but not something I loved reading.


Rating: 7 eyes.

movie: Fantastic Fungi (2019)

Thanks, Mom, for making sure I took a look at this delightful documentary. In the age of work-from-home and social distancing, the days of the week have begun to run together, and I’ve decided to view something special each Friday night to mark the beginning of the weekend, lest I miss the occasion altogether. Fantastic Fungi kicks off my new tradition.

This film is visually stunning, and there are other benefits, but I think this might be the headline. Gorgeous! (Check out the trailer at the Fantastic Fungi website – you can also watch the whole movie from there for $5.) The sped-up/time-lapse film of mushrooms growing and spreading is mesmerizing, beautiful, and surprising: you may find that mushrooms come in far greater variety than you ever realized. And fungi, of course, of which mushrooms are only a subset.

Besides those magnificent visuals, there is plainly-stated science for laypeople – chiefly, the revelation that massive networks of mycelium make up part of the earth under our feet, wherever we go. The interconnectedness of fungi is one of their coolest features. Mushrooms have medicinal properties, make good food, and can be used to filter water; and we understand but the merest bit of them.

And then there is the magic of mushrooms. The film features a series of personalities, mycologists and mushroom-lovers, scientists and entrepreneurs, and of course there are some personalities in this part. When we get to the psychedelics, I’d say it gets a bit carried away and cult-like (and I say this as someone who is totally fine with y’all tripping on mushrooms if you want to, please understand). But there are some great points made about the weird prejudices we (the U.S.) hold as a country and as a society, the setbacks in research in this field, and the very cool recent research in the last 20 years into how psilocybin might could help cancer patients and those who suffer from depression and PTSD. Good information, but a bit mystical and awed. That said, this beautiful film would probably be enjoyable while eating the magic mushrooms, too.

The NYT calls it “informative and kooky,” and I think that’s about right. If you’re not already moderately mushroom-expert, this documentary will teach you something, and it will certainly stun and sooth your eyeballs. I rather agree with the reviewer that “I could have done without Brie Larson’s cutesy narration,” offering the fungi’s collective point of view. But cutesy is part of the shtick here. And I’m unconvinced by the idea that mushrooms will help us – with technology, of course – to save the world, but that’s a matter of my worldview, and your mileage, as usual, may vary. Worth $5 and 80 minutes of my life? Heck, yes. I’d love to have that time-lapse fungi playing on a loop, in fact. Enjoy.


Rating: 7 spores.
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