Monday, April 25, 2016

A Walk in the Woods

By Bill Bryson

In his middle age, Bill Bryson developed the urge to hike the Appalachian Trail. The Trail runs from Georgia to Maine through the hills and mountains along the East Coast of the USA. It is more than 2000 miles long. In some places it is well maintained and in others, not so much. Most of it is up and down and, although many start out, few complete the whole trail in one trip.
Bryson hiked quite a bit when he lived in England. But the Appalachian Trail is not a pleasant stroll through settled and tamed countryside. It goes through rugged wilderness, with amenities few and far between.
Not wanting to tackle this wilderness alone, Bryson searched in vain for a friend to accompany him. He failed to find anyone until a very old friend from back home in Iowa got in touch with him. Stephen Katz needed to get away from troubles at home and offered to go with Bryson on his hike. Bryson had his doubts as Katz was known to be a drinker and he didn't think Katz was up to it. But Katz was the only one who was willing and so they started out down in Georgia.
Hiking with a loaded pack on steep grades is a real challenge. Both of the men were suffering the first few days, Katz especially. Bryson would often sit alongside the trail, waiting for Katz to catch up. They were frequently passed by younger, fitter hikers but they kept on. They kept on through the rain, through the snow, through the mud and dirt and later on, the clouds of annoying bugs. But at the end of their hike, they asked themselves, "Why?' And that's when they couldn't come up with a good enough answer and went home.
Altogether, Bryson walked about 800 miles, Katz somewhat less. And although they didn't do the whole distance, they still felt like they had accomplished something: they hiked the Appalachian Trail.

This was a fun read. Bryson has a great sense of humor and doesn't mind laughing at himself and the world around him. He also gives the reader a real sense of what it is like to be on the trail and the struggles associated with such a grand undertaking. He gives a bit of history of the Trail and the locale and how development has or hasn't affected not only the Trail but the surrounding area. Particularly interesting is the story of Centralia, Pennsylvania, the town that is perpetually on fire. Bryson has wide ranging interests and is a very intelligent man and his books are always informative without being stuffy and are seasoned nicely with humor.
For another review, see

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Is There a Doctor in the Zoo?

By David Taylor

Even as a small child, David Taylor wanted to care for wild animals, to treat their wounds and cure their ills. Encouraged by his loving grandmother, together they launched him on his career as a vet who specializes in exotic animals.
Taylor got his professional start in a small two-man practice with a veterinarian who also had a zoo as a client. This man sort of inherited the zoo as a client and it was not a particularly important part of his practice. In fact, he was often called in as a mere formality so the zoo keepers could claim that the animal was attended to by the vet before it died.
But Taylor wanted to learn how to take proper care of the zoo creatures, not just be there as a last resort when all else had failed the zoo keepers. To that end, he embarked on a course of self-education, learning all he could from the keepers and other experts on the medical care of exotic creatures, everything from irascible parrots, unpredictable monkeys and apes, giant snakes, zebras, camels, seals and even dolphins and porpoises.

This book is the sequel to his first book, Zoo Vet. Although, time wise, it comes first as it details his efforts to become an expert in the care and treatment of zoo animals. Dr. Taylor has an excellent sense of humor and no problem poking fun at himself in his often messy and painful encounters with his animal patients. I especially enjoyed his description of how he freed a dugong that was being held in cruel and inhumane conditions and beaten daily to futilely provoke it into weeping, as its keeper thought that dugong tears were a cure for impotence. Even more amazing was the revenge he enacted on a bunch of drug runners who were torturing a poor animal for their simple-minded amusement. That episode alone made the whole book for me. The rest was just icing on a very tasty cake.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Andy & Don

By Daniel de Visé

Andy Griffith and Don Knotts were both sons of the South. Andy grew up in North Carolina and Don in West Virginia. Andy had a fairly normal childhood, even if his parents weren't wealthy. He was a bit of a momma's boy and remained close to his mother his whole life. Don, on the other hand, had a miserable childhood, tormented by his alcoholic and mentally ill father. He was also plagued by illness and grew up to be a bit of a hypochondriac.
Both boys were drawn to the stage. Andy had a fine singing voice and he played a musical instrument. He also had the gift of storytelling, starting out his show biz career with humorous monologues. His success with the monologues led to jobs in theater and in movies.
Don started out as a ventriloquist and served in the military as an entertainer. After leaving the military, he got work on a radio show and eventually came to work with Andy Griffith, first in the Broadway play, No Time for Sergeants, and went on to also appear in the film version with Griffith.
The two men became close friends and when Griffith was offered his own show, Don called him up and suggested that Sheriff Andy needed a deputy sidekick, namely Don Knotts himself. Andy thought it was a great idea and so Don and Andy embarked on the roles that would win them fame and a lasting audience of enthusiastic fans even decades later.

This was a really interesting book, a story of a lifelong friendship with a bit of ego and rivalry thrown in for leavening. The Andy Griffith Show wasn't on TV for a really long time, about eight years, but the characters of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife are part of American history now. However, this book isn't about just the TV show. It covers the span of both men's lives, their ups and downs, their failures and successes, personal and professional.
It was quite an enthralling read and I appreciate the amount of research the author put into the work, even taking the time to note discrepancies in different versions of events. Fan of Andy and Don and of their work will surely enjoy this quite engaging biography of these two giants of Show Business.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Red Rising

By Pierce Brown

Darrow is a miner on Mars. Just a teen, he is really good at his job. His people are the Reds. Their society is divided into classes labeled by colors. Reds are at the bottom, Golds are at the top.
The miners are working to terraform Mars for colonists from Earth. They have been at this task for several hundred years. What they have not been told is that Mars has been terraformed. It now has cities, farms, forests, rivers, lakes, rain, all the good stuff. For some reason, the Reds are kept as virtual slaves in the mines, starved and deprived and deceived.
Darrow's young wife Eo wants better for her people. She tries to inspire Darrow but he is not interested in rebellion until Eo is put to death.
Darrow ends up in the hands of Ares, a rebel group. Since he is one of the best of the Red class, their plan is to transform him into a Gold and place him in Gold society to hopefully bring justice to the downtrodden Reds.
He undergoes extensive surgeries and education and is given a phony background and is placed for an entrance exam to the most elite Gold school. He passes all the tests and is admitted to the school.
School is not what he expected. Instead of classes and tests and books, he and his fellow students are set up in castles in a wilderness and told they have to rule and conquer each other. So Darrow and his classmates go to war against each other in a struggle for dominance and survival.
Darrow's goal is to succeed and go on to be a force for good for his people. He feels to accomplish this he has to come out on top. But he is up against very stiff competition, Gold students who are as athletic, ruthless, intelligent and driven as he is. May the best man win, eh?

This is another entry in the science fiction teen vs teen genre, i.e. Hunger Games and Divergent and Maze Runner, none of which I have read because teenage dystopian novels don't interest me. And now I wish I hadn't read this entry to the genre because, once Darrow enters the "school," it is just battles and brutality. Lots of people love that sort of thing. Not me.
It's a pretty good story, even if I hated it. My problem is the subject matter, not the writing itself. He tells a good story, exciting and engaging and surprising. But I got so tired of the constant battles that I started skipping past those parts. It's not a bad read or even just a fair read but I will not be reading the next book in the series. It's just not for me.

For another review, see