Monday, April 22, 2013

Camping vs. Fame vs. Housewifery vs. More Public Domain Audiobooks

Kevin Callan, in his lark of a sequel to the fantastic camping book The Happy Camper, has a great story about risk. On a paddling trip with his friend Audrey, he takes a running jump into a lake and breaks his ankle on a rock. Audrey says, “Aren't you glad you weren't solo camping when you broke your ankle?” Kevin says, “If I was solo camping, I never would have jumped into a lake like that.”

I've been squirrelly to go hiking all winter, and I've been reading some camping books, but I need the right kind of camping book. I have yet to choose a camping book where people are willfully stoopid. Part of me wants to read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild or Aron Ralston's 127 Hours/Between a Rock and a Hard Place, but I don't know if I could read a book where people's blatant mistakes get them into ridiculous situations and they suffer from them. Well, yes, a person who goes camping badly won't necessarily come to harm, but you shouldn't go waltzing with bears like Timothy Treadwell and expect to come out of it safely. Aron Ralston, for all that he's James Franco, made the cardinal mistake of not telling anyone where he was going before he went climbing for the weekend. After he was missed at work on Monday, his rescue was further delayed by the search teams' needing to comb an entire mountain range to find him, since no one had an idea of his approximate location. If a person can't call their parents and say, “I'm going hiking in this area and if I'm not back Sunday night then I'm probably injured or dead so you should alert the authorities,” then why should I read their book? (Kevin Callan has another great story about a canoeist who failed to notify his emergency contact when he got back from his trip, and the massive search and rescue that was undertaken on his behalf while he unpacked his gear and went to bed.)

I don't want to read camping books about daft people, so what have I been reading? Kevin Callan's Wilderness Pleasures (which I leant to Sara because it's pro-kayak), Mugged by a Moose, and Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure. I actually read Wilderness Pleasures back in January, but if one were to read the same genre all the time, one would go mad with boredom, even if all the stories were as hilarious as the one in Mugged by a Moose where the guy almost gets eaten by a polar bear. Unfortunately, not all the stories in Mugged by a Moose are all that hilarious, but I've only ever found one travel anthology where all the stories were good (Going Alone: Women's Adventures in the Wild) and those stories aren't funny, just swashbuckling. Mugged by a Moose was maybe half funny and half meh, but that's pretty good for a travel anthology. I snagged a Best Lesbian Travel Adventures out of the recycling bin at work last year, and that book didn't even open with a good story.

Peakbagging is not a sex act (Missie says it sounds like one), it is climbing to the tops of all the mountains in a certain place and then feeling good about it. New Hampshire has 48 mountains over 4,000 feet and when you climb all of them you get a T-shirt. Up: A Mother and Daughter's Peakbagging Adventure is the story of Patricia Ellis Herr and her daughter Alex and their attempt to bag every peak in New Hampshire. Fortunately, Trish doesn't describe every peak they bag. Amazingly, she keeps the story rolling. She talks about highlights, judgement, risk management, planning, her daughter's moods, research, the challenges of hiking with children, and occasionally she describes a view. It's great. I know firsthand how plodding your mental place can be while you're hiking. If I wrote a book about my solo hike last summer, I would tell you about the half hour I spent thinking about my co-worker's vacation. “I bet they're going to the beach.” “I wonder if they're eating seafood?” Sometimes I hike and relive entire episodes of television shows. And the landscape. “Here's some more trees. Their leaves are green.” Trish knows not to deliver a blow by blow of every hike; she keeps up the drama. She starts out with a gut-wrenching story about a day when she did everything right. She and her daughters, Alex (five) and Sasha (three), checked the weather forecast before they left home. Trish had all their emergency supplies in a pack, they were hydrated and aware, and a lighting storm formed above their heads, formed! (according to Bill Bryson, in the White Mountains storms do that) and in five minutes they went from sunshine and puffy clouds to pounding rain and lightning. Trish had two little children above the tree line. She made the best decision she could, dropped her pack, picked up Sasha and they ran for it. She stowed the kids in lightning position in a hollow. They needed to descend, but Trish didn't feel safe without her pack. What if she snapped her ankle on the way down? What if conditions worsened and they had to spend the night on the mountain? If Trish left the girls and ran for the pack, Sasha might bolt from fear, and then she would have a lost three-year-old on a mountain in a storm. Firm instructions to stay where they huddled, and Trish ran up and came back down to two sobbing little girls, Alex hanging onto Sasha's raincoat and saying, “She wanted to run and look for you.” Those were the risks that Patricia Herr took when her five-year-old daughter decided she wanted to climb all the mountains. After she figured out how to limit risks. Trish tells the story of her daughters' first, abortive, attempt to summit, when she made all the mistakes. The family waited until April, when the snow in their front yard was melted, then Trish threw some water and snacks in her backpack and they started hiking. They hit snow not very far up the mountain. Trish was in shorts. The girls kept sinking up to their waists. An old man came down the mountain in snowshoes and gave them some funny looks. Trish turned her daughters back around, did two months of research, dropped a thousand dollars on equipment and she and Alex did their first 4,000er in June. Trish was constantly surprised by Alex's tenacity. She earned her peakbagging t-shirt at the age of seven, at the end of the book, and according to their website, they're climbing about in other states now. Patricia Ellis Herr's husband is a professor at Harvard, hence the time and resources, but the book was still a fantastic, outdoorsy read.

And then I got curious about Kristin Hannah. Her books have pastel covers and titles like Home Front and Angel Falls and they sell like hot cakes. I should have chosen a thinner Kristin Hannah, but I was downstairs at work deciding which backstocked audiobook to check out, and Firefly Lane jumped out at me. I was hoping it would be a gripping fluff of unputdownableness, but it wasn't. I did finish it, however, which makes it better than Twilight. Kate and Tully are best friends forever and ever until 2005 when Kate dies of cancer. It works; I was wondering Kristin Hannah was going to wrap things up since every historic event and fashion style since 1976 was chronicled, and the book needed to end solidly. Kristin Hannah couldn't just let the future go in an ambiguous direction with no skinny jeans, she had to rip Kate and Tully apart with death. If I had a friend dying of cancer, I would probably feel differently about this book.

Before Kate dies, she's a housewife. She is, actually, the kind of woman who reads Kristin Hannah novels, except that her husband makes enough money that things like dying of cancer and putting money in the kids' college fund aren't mutually exclusive. Tully is a famous news broadcaster/ talk show host. She majored in journalism but her obsession is getting herself famous on TV. Tully and Kate's husband Johnny are both journalists with an alarming disregarding for the whole “news” thing. None of the characters are deep, except the men who look into Tully's eyes and say, “You need to love even if it hurts,” and it's hard to cram thirty years into three hundred pages, so Kristin Hannah doesn't let her characters have relationships outside of Kate, Tully, Johnny,Tully's two occasional boyfriends, Kate's parents and her daughter. You wonder: Why don't these people make other friends? How are these two women who've never had anything in common still friends? Why is Kate's funeral packed when she only knows eight people? The entire premise, that Kate and Tully become friends in junior high and then Tully moves away and they stay in touch and remain best friends forever, seemed unlikely. Eighth graders are bad at staying in touch, and Kate and Tully continue to have nothing in common for the next thirty years, except Johnny. He's in love with Tully, Kate's in love with him, he and Tully boink, Kate stays in love with him, he gets Kate pregnant and remains devoted to her until, on her death bed, she awkwardly tells him that he and Tully should get back together.

Kate is boring in a plausible, housewifely way. Tully is boring in a famous way. You see, fame is hard and no one ever loved Tully so she feels lonely in her forties and wishes she had a family like her harried best friend has. It's the kind of fame that non-famous people imagine famous people have so that they can feel good that the rich cry too. I only know one famous person, and she's an author, not a talk show host, but the highlight of her week is playing Scrabble with my mom on Fridays. I would posit that real famous people, especially people who are famous for being skilled at their careers, are not as empty inside as Tully is. They also have bailout options. If Oprah (and Kristin Hannah says Tully is half as famous as Oprah) wanted to commit herself to nonprofit work or retire to a horse farm, she could probably manage it. Kristin Hannah creates a weird TV star/housewife dichotomy, and tells us that love is the most important thing, which means that housewifery trumps famousness. But if housewives die, and TV stars end up with their dead best friend's husband, then isn't it better to be famous?

Other things I've been reading: From Plotzk to Boston, a contemporary account, by a sixteen-year-old girl, of what it takes to get from the pale of Russia to Boston by cart, train, and steamer. Sweethearts by Sara Zarr, which was a book club book for a book club meeting that I failed to attend, and When Patty Went to College, where Patty has fewer hijinks than in Just Patty.

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