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Archive for the ‘Three Stars’ Category

I read The Clan of the Cave Bear many decades ago and I remembered liking it, being impressed by it, and that the main character’s name was Ayla. But that was all.

When I recently read Pushed Back it reminded me of this book, so I read it again now.

The story plays about 30,000 years ago, the end of the age of the Neanderthals, on the peninsula of Crimea, the same Crimea that was taken over by Russia from Ukraine in 2014. The glaciation of the northern hemisphere was at its maximum, reaching down all the way to southern England, covering Scandinavia, and getting to within a few hundred miles of Crimea in what is now Russia.

Ayla is a 5-year-old girl born to Cro-Magnon humans who had just started arriving in Europe at that time. Ayla was away from her tribe playing when a strong earthquake demolished their encampment and everyone perished. The little girl was left alone, naked, in the wilderness. After days of wandering about, just before her imminent death, a migrating troupe of Neanderthals comes along and their medicine woman, Iza, convinces the leader to take the little girl in so she could save her life. And so it comes about that a little girl “born to the Others” is raised in a Neanderthal clan.

The Others look like modern humans, and the Clan people find her ugly. Eventually she is accepted into the Clan and those around come to love and respect her. But it does not come without a price. The Clan’s rules are highly patriarchic and restrictive. The successor to the current leader, Broud, is an ambitious youth, very insecure, and sees Ayla with all her differences as a threat. He develops a deep hatred for her that festers and escalates until the day he takes over.

The book is 468 pages long and delves deeply into the Clan’s society, culture and individual thinking. As a reader, I found myself thinking like many of the main characters, like Brun, the Neanderthal leader, Broud, his eventual successor, Creb, the clan’s magician and spiritual leader, and the many women and children. The author goes into great detail into the lifestyle of the clan, how they live, hunt, eat, celebrate and socialize. Reading this book is an immersion into stone-age life.

Much of the detail, of course, is the author’s conjecture. For instance, she describes the Clan people as speaking mostly using sign language and not voices. She also makes many assumptions about the social structure, and while we are not sure what is fact and fiction, I was fine with it. I didn’t come to read the book to get a historically accurate and factual representation of Neanderthal life, I came to experience what it might have been like, and how it would have felt. In that, the author was very successful.

For a while, as I was reading the book, I became a Neanderthal.

It struck me how much of their life and their culture was guided by “spirits.” Most important decisions, most laws or rules, were based on what the spirits wanted or dictated. Many decisions were made not based on the visible reality of the world, but what they thought the spirits wanted. This caused misery, sometimes death, unspeakable pain and sorrow, and much overall suffering.

One of the conjectures I found hardest to believe was that the Clan people thought that pregnancies were started by totem spirits fighting over the woman’s body. If the outside male spirit won, the woman became pregnant. Sexuality was a casual activity. Any male could beckon any woman or young girl, any time he wanted, and she would simply have to assume the position, so he could “relieve his need.” This was done in open sight all the time. You would think that Neanderthal society, which was active for over 100,000 years without any real progress or change, but was very smart with herbs, medicinal uses of plants, tool making, and the like, would have figured out that it was the relieving of a man’s need into a woman’s womb that might be the cause of the baby getting started in there? Surely they knew!

While I wondered how it was possible that societies could be that much influenced by imaginary powers, imaginary threats, and imaginary disasters, I realized that we have many parallels today.

Millions of people today are still guided by religions and their laws, ceremonies, customs and limitations. In addition, we allow ourselves to suffer from imaginary foes, like mortgages coming due, debts having to be repaid, bad grades in college, titles attained or not attained. All those things are imaginary powers, not unlike the spirits of the Neanderthals, and I found suddenly that my life was not that different and in its own way was driven by the Spirit of the Cave Bear.

 

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A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood tells the real-life story of the relationship of Tom Junod, a journalist who wrote for Esquire Magazine, and Mr. Rogers, the famous children’s television show host.

In the fictionalized story, the journalist is Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). He is burned out and trapped in an emotional mess of his own making. He can’t reconcile the broken relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), and he takes it out on his supportive wife and indirectly on his infant son. When he is assigned to profile Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), he first thinks it’s a joke.

When he meets Mr. Rogers, he goes through a learning process, when the famed star of the children’s show uses his techniques of dealing with emotions to elicit empathy and kindness. While Lloyd ends up writing the story of his life, ending up on the cover of Esquire Magazine, he also learns how to deal with his emotions and inner conflicts. He makes peace with the demons of his life and settles his scores with his estranged father.

Tom Hanks makes a wonderful Mr. Rogers. They could not have found a better actor for this role. While we see into the soul of the journalist, Tom Hanks shows us that the seemingly unflappable Mr. Rogers has his own pains and moments of sorrow and anger.

This comes to life in the last minute of the movie, when Mr. Rogers plays the piano in the studio, after a show, when the crew has left, the studio is all quiet and dark. Mr. Rogers plays a painful tune and then suddenly pounds all the lowest keys of the piano a few times hard, and we, the viewers, all know what that means.

You’ll just have to go and find out.

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Joseph Bridgeman is a single guy with a failing antiques business, money problems, emotional problems, and for some reason he can’t sleep.

But he has some unusual skills. For instance, he can “view” the past, not like you and I when we recall memories. No, he can get into another person’s head and see the world from their point of view. He does that involuntarily when he sleeps. No wonder he is an insomniac!

He also has a terrible history. In 1992, when he was 14, he took his little sister to the fair and she disappeared. As one might expect, the family was never the same again and Joe’s life was dominated by his guilt.

Then, quite by accident, when trying to get help from a hypnotherapist, he discovers that he can time travel.

Can he go back to the fair in 1992 and change things just enough to keep his sister from disappearing?

I am a time travel buff, so I had to read this. I am glad I did. This story is a unique time travel tome, reminiscent of The Time Traveler’s Wife, or the various books by Nathan Van Coops (search my blog for his stories). There is a sequel, which is not as highly rated by the reviewers on Amazon, but I like Nick Jones’ style well enough, I’ll probably pick up the next one.

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This book is about trees.

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes. . . .

Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel (p. 132).

Have you ever thought about where the material for trees comes from? The wood is heavy. Does it come from the dirt? One of the protagonists, when she was a 10-year-old girl, asked her father, an arborist, this question. He suggested an experiment. They prepare a large tub behind their barn and fill it with an exact amount of dirt. They weigh the dirt and record the weight. Then they plant a seedling tree. He tells her that they’d weigh the tree and the dirt on her sixteenth birthday. They’d have their answer.

When the time finally came, it was a substantial tree. She dug it out and carefully removed all the dirt from the roots and then weighed the tree. It was heavier than she was. Then she weighed the dirt, and is was exactly the same weight it was many years before. Clearly, all the mass of the tree had come from the air.

I must admit, I had never thought of that before. We all know that trees tie up carbon, and the carbon is pulled out of the air. That’s one thing I learned from reading The Overstory.

Did you know that the American chestnut tree was once the most common tree in the country, until a disease wiped them out completely?

I learned many other fascinating facts I had never thought of before or knew nothing about.

The Overstory tells about the lives of trees through the lives, eyes and deeds of nine seemingly unrelated people whose paths cross over time and over generations.

It deals with issues like climate change, evolution and deforestation. We get a glimpse of the lives of “tree huggers” and ecoterrorists.

Deforestation: a bigger changer of climate than all of transportation put together. Twice as much carbon in the falling forests than in all the atmosphere. But that’s for another trial.

Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel (p. 281).

The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize in 2019. It is a worthwhile and very interesting book, yet it’s a hard read. Some of the characters are easy to follow, but some of them didn’t make sense to me and, as far as I could tell, could have been left out of the story completely. It’s quite possible they contributed and were somehow related, and I missed it. Due to the number of central characters, I had difficulty following what was going on at times. After a character was introduced, but then was absent for a while, I forgot about the character, and when he returned, I didn’t remember him.

Overall, this is an excellent book with some serious “flow flaws.” The subject matter warrants four stars, but the execution of the novel is clumsy, so my overall rating is only three stars.

After reading The Overstory, I will never think of forests and trees quite the same way again. It has fundamentally changed my perspective.

Do I recommend The Overstory?

Definitely yes.

 

 

Reading The Overstory reminded me of another “book about trees” I read a long time ago: The Wild Trees – by Richard Preston, is an incredible book which I rated four stars at the time. I highly recommend it.

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Lale was a Slovakian Jew who was ordered by the Nazis in 1942 to go to a work camp. After days of travel in a cramped and filthy cattle car, he stepped off the train in the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz.

Rather than despairing, he commits himself to survival. Because he speaks six languages, he is chosen to become the tattooist, the person who marks arriving prisoners with a number on their arms. He serves as the camp’s primary tattooist from 1942 to 1945. The position comes with privileges, like his own room to sleep in, additional rations, and the ability to come and go with much more freedom than the common inmates. Through his resourcefulness, he starts smuggling food into the camp, not just for himself to survive, but to help as many of his fellow prisoners as he can. One day, when he writes a number on a trembling girl’s arm, he looks up and instantly falls in love. Her name is Gita. Over time they develop a friendship and eventually a love that transcends the conditions in the camp and gives them both a reason to survive, and fight for their future.

This story is based on the true experiences of Ludwig (Lale) Sokolov, the tattooist of Auschwitz. Just last month I posted this story about three men who arrived at Auschwitz on the same day and had their numbers only 10 apart. Chances are high that we’re looking at Lale’s work.

I have heard people talk about how good this book is and that it’s a love story. I found that – yes – it’s a love story, but that is not the reason to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz. The reason to read it is because it illustrates life in a concentration camp and it shows the atrocities the Nazis committed, the murders, the mutilations, the humiliation, the forced starvation, the diseases, upon millions of innocent men, women and children. There are many books about Auschwitz, and this is one more, but in my opinion, you can’t read enough of those.

Fascism, and what it does to people, must be exposed, over and over again.

 

This book reminds me of many other books I have read and documented here that deal with the subject of Nazis and the atrocities they committed in the concentration camps. I have compiled them here in a separate post.

 

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Maiden is a documentary about Tracy Edwards, a 24-year-old English girl who decides to make it her quest to sail around the world in the Whitbread Round the World race in 1989. The journey is grueling, going for 27,500 miles, from England down to Uruguay, then east through the southern ocean to Australia and New Zealand, then back round Cape Horn and up north through the Atlantic again. It takes about 9 months.

The entire sail-racing world is completely dominated by men, and no crew is willing to take her on. She decides she has to find her own all-women crew, buy a boat, get a sponsorship, train and – yes, sail. She is the laughing stock of the sailing world. Nobody takes her seriously. When she can’t find any sponsors, she mortgages her house and buys a second-hand boat that they first need to fix up.

Finally, against all odds, the starting gun sounds in Southhampton in 1989, and she sails off heading south. Nobody believed she would make it out more than a few days, or perhaps a couple of weeks, before failing and possibly perishing.

Maiden is a true documentary. Tracy herself and a number of crew members and skippers from other boats tell the story on camera. All the footage is vintage and original. Due to this, the pictures are often grainy and shaky, but they draw you in and you are on the boat embedded with the crew, experiencing the adventure firsthand.

The movie is a documentary of the Whitbread race of its first ever female crew, a testament to the human spirit of fighting against all odds and succeeding, and a validation for women all around the world fighting for their right to be treated as equal members of humanity.

Maiden is inspiring and eminently satisfying.

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Are you watching me now? Watch closely now!

It’s impossible for me to review A Star is Born with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in 2019 without going on a side track about A Star is Born with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand in 1976. Shockingly, while the Cooper/Gaga movie got 89% on the Tomatometer, the Kristofferson/Streisand version got 38%.

What?

Then I read some of the reviews by the critics, and most of them were written in 2019, about a movie older than some of the critics themselves. Whether the 1976 version is a good or great movie in itself is not relevant to me. When I watched it first in 1976, it was phenomenal. It was one of my coming of age films. I remember clearly who I was with at the time. I had just turned 20 and I was figuring out what makes blood boil. The songs in A Star is Born will forever transport me back into those passionate years of my life. Candles on the rims of bathtubs took on meaning for me that never left me since. For me, A Star is Born was one of my favorite movies of all time. 38% my ass!

So I was reluctant to even go see the 2018 version, lest my memories get confused and polluted. But after all the press and hoopla with the Oscars, and after The Woman went to see it and came home and said it was a great movie and I’d better go see it, we went – I for my first  time – she for the second viewing.

The story is the same one. Jackson “Jack” Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a rock superstar with an established career and an alcohol problem. Ally (Lady Gaga) is a struggling artist. They meet by pure chance in a drag bar when Jack stops in for a drink after a performance. He is smitten. She is skeptical. But Jack sees the talent and brings her up on stage at his next concert in a stadium, and when she lets loose with one of her songs, the audience goes wild and the critics swarm all over her. Within just a few months, while he burns in the ashes of drugs and alcohol, she rises like a phoenix. It’s a love story for which we all know the ending, it’s a musical without the corniness of real musicals. The soundtrack is exceptional. The music is all new. And yes, I think the Cooper/Gaga version is as good as the Kristofferson/Streisand version was 42 years ago.

Young lovers will go on and remember this movie for an entire generation. They will own the soundtracks just like I owned the vinyl record of the old A Star is Born for all these years. And my “Are You Watching me Now?” will be their “Shallow” and a new Star is Born.

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It is 1962 in New York City. Tony is an Italian-American in the Bronx. He is a bouncer at a local club and hangs around with questionable mob types. At a party at his house he observes his wife giving two glasses of water to two black workmen when they are thirsty. Later, when nobody is watching, he drops these two glasses in the trash. Blacks in 1962 were treated as sub humans.

When Tony loses his job because the club is remodeling, he looks for a job and hears that Dr. Don Shirley is looking for a driver. Tony shows up at the interview and discovers that Dr. Shirley is black. He is a world-class pianist and he is going on tour in the Deep South. Tony reluctantly signs on. The manager gives him “The Green Book,” a guide for establishments in the South were blacks are welcome. Many times, Tony has to stay at one hotel, while Shirley stays at another.

As one would expect, there is severe resistance to a black man of status in the South, let alone one that has a white driver. The two run into a number of difficult situations, and with every one of them, their mutual respect for each other seems to rise, and they slowly build a friendship. Tony gets lessons in grammar, speech, etiquette and general humanity from Dr. Shirley, and when he comes home after a months-long tour, he is not quite the rough neck that he was when he left.

Green Book is very rewarding movie. It gives us a glimpse of America before Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement of the mid-sixties. Discrimination and racism were rampant and brutal. But the human spirit transcends the differences, and two very different men become friends.

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A Private War is a dramatized documentary about the life of Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), an American journalist who worked as a foreign affairs correspondent for the British newspaper The Sunday Times from 1985 until her death in 2012.

Being a foreign affairs correspondent is somewhat of a euphemism for “going into war zones” armed only with a camera and a lot guts. She was a brave woman, fearless and dedicated to getting the real story out, the truth, no matter the cost. She was born in 1956, like I, and she spent one of her high school years abroad, like I. She is no longer alive today because she chose a very dangerous profession, unlike I.

Watching A Private War is hugely important in today’s world, where our leaders send young men and women into battle in foreign countries without seemingly blinking an eye, over and over again. Don’t we ever learn that war is deadly, not only to those who die getting shot on the battle field, but to those whose souls are killed and who struggle for the rest of their lives after they are lucky enough to return.

A Private War is crushingly realistic and very difficult to watch. I was numb when the credits rolled, shocked, and disgusted with what we are doing to ourselves, to other countries, in the name of democracy, freedom and religion. Go watch A Private War and get yourself a new perspective and then tell me it makes any sense to send off one more American soldier to any conflict overseas.

Stop it already.

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Oscar (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy from Honduras. Forced to flee his home to escape gang brutality, he goes on the long trek in hopes of meeting up with this uncle, who lives and works in the United States. Eventually he reaches the border and tries to seek asylum. But the journey is not simple, and he ends up in a cage in an ice-cold warehouse (the Icebox) with nothing but little space blankets and a thin mattress. Rather than reaching the promised land after a long and arduous journey, he is lost in the American immigration system, and that’s where his journey only starts.

The timing for this movie could not be more appropriate. In an age where our leadership vilifies immigrants, and demonizes those that come from the south as criminals, rapists and drug dealers, it is enlightening to witness the human story of the immigrants themselves.

Frightened in an alien world, separated from their families, terrified by the crime and gang violence at home, these people are abused, beaten and subjugated — all for the “crime” of trying to make a living for themselves and their families.

Now more important than ever, go watch Icebox and then tell me you are afraid of those monsters and criminals who threaten us from the southern border.

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During a dinner out with another couple some time ago we two men talked about “computers” as many of us are wont to do from time to time. Then, a few days later, I received Hackers in an Amazon box. Thanks, Glenn, I really enjoyed this book!

In Hackers, Steven Levy tells the story of the computer revolution starting at the beginning, when a few computer programmers at MIT started thinking about programming different from the establishment, including the academic community and, of course, business. At the time, “business” was pretty much only IBM. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) just started and provided its revolutionary minicomputer, the PDP, to select universities.

That started it all in the Sixties, and the rest, as we so say, is history.

In this book we get to know some of the pioneers we who became household names, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, but there are dozens of others who contributed just as much but whose names did not become as famous.

When I was 14 years old and a schoolboy in Germany in 1970, I bought a book about computers, studied it, and started drawing logic diagrams, cobbled together logic gates to perform the basic arithmetic calculations on notepads. To test them, I used a transformer from my slotcar track, bought little lightbulbs and sockets to represent binary memory registers, toggle switches to enter binary data into the system, and wired the various gates using tiny wires and Molex connectors. Yes, I was 14, and I was designing computers.

School and life took me away, and it would be another 10 years before I entered the computer field. By then, the classic hacker revolution was over, and the industry had already worked itself into a pattern of exponential growth. Reading Hackers now brings me back to my youth and how it all started for me. Becoming an expert programmer and eventually starting a software company has consumed my professional life. By choosing a career in a field that fascinated me since my youth, I have never really worked a day in my life. I always just got paid for doing what I would have been doing anyway. But I started out as a hacker and I could relate to all these other hackers.

Any computer aficionado on any level will enjoy reading Steven Levy’s Hackers. It’s a guide through the decades of what we call the computer revolution, focusing mostly on the first two or three decades that started it all.

 

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Bohemian Rhapsody is a biopic of Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), the iconic lead singer of the British rock band Queen. It starts with the early life of Freddie, whose birth name was Farrokh Bulsara, was born in Zanzibar, and grew up there and in India before moving to England with this family.

He is widely regarded as one of the best singers in rock history with a vocal range of four octaves. Freddie broke through stereotypes and conquered convention when he lead the band Queen through a meteoric rise in the 1980s.

Freddie’s lifestyle almost ruined the band. They reunited just before the Live Aid concert in 1985. Their performance at that concert is widely regarded as the greatest rock performance of all time.

The movie was criticized for flattening out the Freddie Mercury character, but I don’t know how you could give it any more depth in a movie. Yes, to the music critics and people studying the persona of the famed singer, no movie can ever do it justice.

But for the average person, like me, who really wasn’t that into any specific band, Bohemian Rhapsody has prompted me to study up on Queen, read more about Freddie, and relive some of those iconic moments in rock history.

Rami Malek did an amazing job playing Freddie. He warned the producers that he is not a singer. The soundtrack is original Queen, and the voice of Freddie. The New York Times also reported that Rami’s voice is mixed in with Marc Matel, a Canadian singer who is known as one of the best Freddie soundalikes.

I was rocking, I was reminiscing, and I was thoroughly enjoying the Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s a killer soundtrack.

 

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The Warp Clock is the fourth book in what I now call the Ben Travers Series of books. The others were:

In The Warp Clock, Ben Travers comes back with a vengeance.

After the so-so The Day After Never, which ventured into foo-foo time travel, Van Coops is back with a time travel thriller about time travel all the way.

A group of convicts and criminals has banded together in a set of remote timestreams using decommissioned time gates from the Chronothons. They are working on changing history mostly with the objective of enriching themselves, but under the pretense of making the world a better place. They are kidnapping historical figures, like Hitler and Genghis Khan, putting them into an arena a-la-Colosseum and making them fight each other for their lives, to the pleasure of the onlookers. It’s not a happy world. Ben and Mym, and their daughter Piper, are trapped in this nightmare of a world from which they can only escape through a tricky sequence of – you guessed it – time travel jumps that make your mind bend.

It’s all worth it. The book is written in the first person present tense, which gives it a rapid-fire feeling. The action drives forward from sentence to sentence, giving it a truly breathless pace.

Of course, there is also Dr. Quickly and a cameo appearance of Cowboy Bob in Montana and his housekeeper Connie. The old band is back together.

I would not recommend reading this book out of order. If you’re interested in the Ben Travers series, you really need to start with In Times Like These, where Time Travel 101 is the course and anchors are the lesson. Then work your way up. The Warp Clock, as the first book, would likely leave you confused or lost.

 

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Fear tells the story of the Trump White House. The book is exactly what I expected it to be. Narrated without any hyperbole, Woodward tells the story of what was going on behind the scenes of the Trump campaign and his first year in the White House. It’s like we are flies on the wall, listening to what everyone is saying.

There are no accusations, there is no name-calling, there are no interpretations. The reaction of Trump and his people when the book first came out was way over the top of what the book actually deserves.

I read nothing that I didn’t already know, but having it laid out in front of me helped corroborate my opinions.

Woodward never interprets for the reader what’s going on. He simply reports. Of course, I wondered how in the world he was able to pull all this detail together, but I know he has hundreds of hours of interviews recorded and the meticulously cross-references and double-checks quotes before he uses them. As the reader, I get to draw my own conclusions.

I already knew that Trump is terribly concerned about what people think about him, the way he looks, and how he appears. He is obsessed about looking weak, and it drives his actions. He is a dilettante, a real estate salesman who is in way over his head, and he knows it, and that’s why he is so insecure.

Cohn wrote a joke for Trump to use at the Gridiron Dinner: “We’ve made enormous progress on the wall. All the drawings are done. All the excavating’s done. All the engineering is done. The only thing we’ve been stumbling with is we haven’t been able to figure out how to stretch the word ‘Trump’ over 1,200 miles.” Trump wouldn’t use it.

Woodward, Bob. Fear: Trump in the White House (pp. 175-176). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Fear is a must-read book by one of the most preeminent journalists of our time. It reads like a novel, and as I turned the pages I kept telling myself that this is real, that what is going on is affecting all of us, now, every day, and in some areas for generations to come.

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Gail Francis hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and wrote a book about it. Unlike some other books about the same subject that I have read (or partially read), Bliss(ters) is not about driving the demons from the writer’s life. Gail Francis rights in simple prose and just tells her story. As the hike progresses, she describes her experiences, her thoughts, and the ups and downs that inevitably come along during such an epic experience. There are not a lot of superlatives, and there is not a lot of emotional mumbo jumbo.

Gail Francis simply takes us along for the hike, allows us to participate in the highlights, and we are spared the pain, the fatigue, and all the hard parts.

Just fun reading all the way. Here is a small excerpt, telling us about shopping in a store along to trail where there was no a lot of selection:

As I browsed the stunted aisles trying to piece together enough meals to last me a couple days, I noticed that the bags of chips appeared to have all been opened already, and then taped shut. When I asked the cashier about it, she explained that when they drive the chips up the mountain, the pressure change makes all the bags pop, so when they get to the resort, they have to tape them all shut again. She said it sounds like guns going off in the back when they start popping and that it is great fun to have an unsuspecting new person make the drive.

— Francis, Gail. Bliss(ters): How I Walked from Mexico to Canada One Summer (Kindle Locations 1605-1609). Kindle Edition.

Bliss(ters) is the best trail hike book I have read, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in hiking.

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