Family secrets. Romance. Nazis. What else could one ask for in a sweeping, epic novel set in France?
[For the record, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah has nothing to do with Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse who basically invented modern nursing — just in case you're as goofy as I am.] It's the story of two sisters during World War II France who, while struggling with the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father, join the French resistance. It's an often brutal novel that explores themes of family obligation, patriotism, courage and redemption along the way.
I'm a bit of a World War II buff. My paternal grandfather fought in Germany as an artillery man, and my maternal grandfather drove skiff boats in the Pacific. I've seen the movies, read a lot of books and watched the miniseries. I know a lot about World War II.
[SPOILER ALERT — also, affiliate link alert. If you click on some of the links in this post, your purchase will go towards supporting Outdoor Book Club (which we're deeply grateful for).]
Except it turns out I didn't really know much about one really important aspect of the war — the German occupation of France. Before I read The Nightingale, the most I knew about the French in WWII was a particularly memorable line from The Simpson's. After reading this book, I feel like I know not only how the war affected French people as a whole, but specifically how it affected the women who were left behind when the men left to fight (and eventually got captured and thrown in prison camps).
Why I liked the book
As much as I complain about not having enough time to read long, sweeping historical novels, I love me an epic tale. This book had a lot going for it: Romance, intrigue, spies, Nazis and sassy women. I liked a lot of the complicated nature of many of the male characters as well.
It's worth mentioning that a lot of other reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon said they cried at this book — personally I'm not a big crier, but this did manage to tug at my heartstrings more than normal.
I found it fascinating how the author portrayed the lives of these French women: how they fought to survive without their men, what they did to try and save others who were less fortunate, how they
compromised in order to make things easier for their children. Reading this book, I asked myself the same question over and over again: what would I do in the same situation? Which of course makes it a great pick for book clubs.
There's also a nice little twist that runs through the story — I won't give it away, but I thought it was well-executed. These days it can be hard to really pull of plot twists well (we're all so jaded), but Hannah manages to do it in The Nightingale.
What I didn't like
There weren't a lot of cons to this book. I sometimes wished the author had added the same level of complexity to the female protagonists as she did to some of the male characters (especially to the younger sister, who I felt often came across as a sort of cartoon-character tomboy). The writing overall flowed, though several members of my book club couldn't help compare the writing to All the Light We Cannot See, another book set during WWII, and found it lacking (though they did admit the writing in the latter was superb and would be hard for anyone to beat).
The Nightingale manages to combine family dynamics, history, romance and tragedy in a way that feels deeply meaningful yet is still a page-turning thriller (at parts). It offers plenty of thorny issues to discuss and reflect on as a book discussion pick, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking for a solid, emotional novel that centers around family, history and hard choices.
Did you read the book? I'm interested to know what you thought. Leave your comments about The Nightengale in the comments below.
We all know the benefits of staying hydrated. Even better, research shows that moderate alcohol use has its benefits: besides raising your "good" cholesterol and possibly helping you fight off colds, it can improve your libido (but we knew that already) and even help you live longer.
It's possible that who you drink with makes all the difference, and on that note, here are five book characters I'd totally throw one back with if given the chance.
1. Katniss Everdeen (whiskey)
This girl could do shots with the best of them and then turn right around and fire an arrow into a dirt bag's Harley at 100 yards. She might be a little quiet at first, but after a few rounds I'm betting Katniss might really get chatty about what it was really like to save Peeta's butt every time he got in trouble.
2. Stephanie Plum (beer)
A modern-day mix of Nancy Drew and Dirty Harry, this girl has been known to tie one on more than once. Janet Evonavich, the series author once said "If Mickey Spillane wrote Archie and Veronica, Stephanie would be Betty." Although Plum has gotten more stable and responsible as the series has gone on, I still think she'd be a blast at a dive bar up north. I'd just have to be sure she left her gun at home before we headed out drinking.
3. Anna Karenina (vodka)
Because, duh, she's Russian. But also because she'd have some pretty great secrets to spill, and although she might very well be a depressing drunk, sometimes that's what a woman needs when she finds herself torn between two lovers.
4. Elizabeth Bennet (tea, of course)
I'm not always out to get a buzz; there are plenty of afternoons where I love to while away the hours gabbing about books and politics and Orange is the New Black. Tea with Liz would be a blast, and I'm betting I could get some good relationship advice as well.
5. Ramona Quimby (milkshake)
My childhood hero, Ramona had the guts to say "guts" when everyone else was scared. I'd love to take her to Jersey Junction and share a peanut butter banana milkshake and tell her everything was going to be okay. Because Ramona was a lot like me, and I don't feel like I heard that nearly enough growing up. The least I could do is say it to Ramona.
What about you? What book heroine would you like to have drinks with? Leave your dream literary drinking buddy's name in the comments below.
So you've been out of the reading habit for awhile; life has gotten away from you and although you used to read voraciously, these days it's just harder and harder to find the time. But you're committed — you want to get back into books and the escape they offer. You also want to be smarter and nicer.
But to kick off this renewed habit, you want to read something really good. Really juicy. I mean like, grabs-you-and-doesn't-let-go kind of amazing. Look no further — I've compiled a list of some of the very best books that have compelled lapsed readers and nonreaders alike to leap back into the reading habit, reigniting their love of books.
I've categorized them a bit so you can make decisions based on what you like to read. I haven't read all of them, but you can bet the ones I haven't are on my TBR list. If you want even more suggestions, be sure you check out Goodreads' Popular Fast Reads.
I know that I've missed some — be sure to add your favorite fast reads in the comments!
And so without further ado...
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (Dark)
If you like dark, ambitious, slightly creepy fair tales, Neil Gaiman is your man. I haven't read this one, but for my friends who love Gaiman, many of them recommend starting with this one. Amazon calls it an "imaginative romp;" Booklist calls it "a lovely yarn."
Lamb by Christopher Moore (Humor)
The subtitle says it all: "The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal." The Philadelphia Inquirer called this book "reminiscent of Vonnegut and Douglas Adams" and a guy I used to date was a big fan of this book as well (which means this might be a good starting point for guys looking to read more literary fiction). If you think you've read everything there is to know about Jesus (and really, who has?), this might be something new to add to your list.
She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb (Literary fiction)
I read this years (and years and years) ago, and despite it's considerable length, I plowed through it. The book was listed as an Oprah Book Club pick way back in 1997, if that says anything. A coming of age novel and a redemption story, She's Come Undone tells the story of overweight 13-year-old Delores Price. Described as a "dysfunctional Wonder Years," the book eloquently (and often with humor) deals with issues such as divorce, mental illness and forgiveness.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (YA)
This is a book I picked up for my then-15-year-old daughter, who is probably one of the toughest reviewers I know. So many people who love Young Adult fiction have recommended this book because of its writing and its new take on teen angst. The book tells the awkward love story between two "star-crossed misfits," the wild-haired, new kid in town Eleanor, and the nerdy but loveable Park. I picked it up last summer, then got distracted with another book (happens all the time), but I definitely plan on picking it back up soon.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Thriller)
There are very few books that I tell people that they have to read, and this is one of them. Not because the book is so, so amazing, but because the plotting in it is fantastic. Blow-your-mind good. If you've seen the movie, fine, you know what happens, but go back and read the book anyway. It's fascinating to watch how Flynn sets all the characters up and then, bam, knocks them back down again.
The Hunger Games By Suzanne Collins (YA)
The closest I've ever come to getting in a fistfight over this book (why yes, there was liquor involved!). Which is curious, because I thought it was a "shitty book." I know, I know, this isn't the best way to start off describing a book that's on a "must read" book list. But thanks to Jennifer Lawrence, we've all become fascinated by the dystopian, bow-wielding herione Katniss and an older, wiser self now thinks it's worth picking up. I've only read the first in the trilogy (see above "shitty book" reference), and it was indeed a fast read. If you're looking to get back into reading, this book will get you back in the groove.
Bossypants by Tina Fey (Humor)
Here's another one that I recommend to people all the time. I love Tina Fey. I'm pretty sure we would be besties if we actually knew each other (I have this reoccurring daydream of her, Jennifer Aniston, and me — maybe Louis CK is there too — all sitting at a booth at Stella's, telling jokes and throwing back whiskey). This book is fast, smart, choke-on-your-tea hilarious and just so, so good. Buy the hard copy; you'll read it and pass it on to all your smart, funny friends (who have actually probably already read it, because it's that damn good, so nevermind.)
Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsen (Thriller)
This is one of the few books that I can say that I've seen the movie, but haven't read the book. Again, I once started it, but as is my habit, got distracted by a shiny other book — which goes against Amazon's claim that "Once you start The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there's no turning back." It tells the story of anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander, a "a misunderstood genius with a cache of authority issues." A thriller filled twists and turns, Booklist laments that "What a shame that we only have three books in which to watch the charismatic Lisbeth Salander take on the world!"
The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell (Nonfiction)
Here's one for you nonfiction fans. Gladwell, the grandfather of pop sociology, describes the tipping point as a "magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire." Using examples such as the drop of violent crime in New York and the comeback of Hushpuppies shoes, this book has already changed how the world thinks about ideas. An engaging, highly readable book.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Dark)
So many people loved this book. So many. I think it has to do with its YA-ish style romance and magical setting, but who knows? I thought it was meh (check out my video review to see why). Still, I think it's worth mentioning as a good book to get you back in the habit if you've been out for awhile.
Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet (Historical fiction)
The first book in a series about a cathedral being built in the middle ages. Brilliantly written, with plenty of romance, thrills and historical context to go around. This may not be exactly a "quick read" at over 1,000 pages, but it's still a good one. The Library Journal says the book "will appeal more to lovers of exciting adventure stories than true devotees of historical fiction." Sold.
Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner (Chick lit)
Meet Candace "Cannie" Shapiro, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who one day opens up a magazine and finds a column penned by her ex-boyfriend that proclaims "Loving a larger woman is an act of courage in our world." Thoroughly humiliated, Cannie takes solace in tequila and her rat terrier Nifkin, and then proceeds down the road of redemption. "This is a must-read for any woman who struggles with body image, or for anyone who cares about someone who does," said Publisher's Weekly. I'm saving this one for the next time I'm sick, and need something engaging and fast to read.
Okay, so let me know: what did I miss? What did I list that should've been left off this list? Leave a comment below.
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Women love adventure. We may not have our adventures in the same way as men, but so many of us long to break free from the bonds and demands of work, housework, commutes and what people think about us, that to head out into the wild often means the wild of our souls. But of course it's never that easy.
[Quick story: to perfectly illustrate how women's adventures differ from men's, while researching this post, I found an Amazon book list titled, "Best Sellers in Women's Adventure Fiction." YES! But the first book on the list? Lesbian Assassins. Which goes to show you, our ideas about adventures can look very different, depending on your gender.]
If you're looking to add some adventure to your life (and yes, you should, because what are you doing with this one wild and precious life?), of course you need to sign up for one of Outdoor Book Club's trips and/or workshops. But, if while waiting for the trip to start you need a mini adventure in written form, be sure to check out of one the women's adventure books on our list.
So take a look through the titles below (two of them were written more than 80 years ago!) and see if you can't find a book that appeals to you. Though I should mention one caveat about the list: I didn't include Wild by Cheryl Strayed and West With the Night by Beryl Markham simply because they are such obvious picks, the epitome of what represents the best books about women adventuring, that I didn't include them here (besides, I've already talked about them in my post Top books about women and the outdoors).
Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail
by Jennifer Pharr Davis
“I found things in the woods that I didn’t know I was looking for… and now I’ll never be the same.”
(Memoir) After graduating from college, Davis, who doesn't have much experience backpacking, is drawn to the Appalachian Trail, a 2175-mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine. She decides to hike it alone, despite her friends and family's protests, hoping it will give her some clarity about her life's direction. She quickly discovers through hiking is much more physically and emotionally difficult than she had expected: blisters, aching shoulders from the 30-pound pack, sleeping on the hard wooden floors of trail shelters; endless torrents of rain and even a blizzard. But with every step, Davis experiences a transition: from over-confident college grad to a student of the trail. The trail is full of unexpected kindness, generosity and humor. And when tragedy strikes, she learns that she can depend on other people to help her in times of need.
Grandma Gatewood's Walk: The Inspiring Story of the Woman Who Saved the Appalachian Trail
by Ben Montgomery
“Her chest full of crisp air and inspiration, her feet atop a forgettable mountain where the stars make you feel insignificant and important all at once. And she sang.”
(Nonfiction) Grandma Gatewood, as the reporters called her, became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail alone, as well as the first person—man or woman—to walk it twice and three times. Gatewood became a hiking celebrity and appeared on TV and in the pages of Sports Illustrated. The public attention she brought to the little-known footpath was unprecedented. Her vocal criticism of the lousy, difficult stretches led to bolstered maintenance, and very likely saved the trail from extinction.
Author Ben Montgomery was given unprecedented access to Gatewood’s own diaries, trail journals, and correspondence, and interviewed surviving family members and those she met along her hike, all to answer the question so many asked: Why did she do it? The story of Grandma Gatewood will inspire readers of all ages by illustrating the full power of human spirit and determination. Even those who know of Gatewood don’t know the full story—a story of triumph from pain, rebellion from brutality, hope from suffering.
Eye Of The Needle
By Ken Follett
"The trouble with being inspired to perform the impossible was that the inspiration gave you no clues to the practical means.”
(Novel) It is 1944 and weeks before D-Day. The Allies are disguising their invasion plans with a phoney armada of ships and planes. Their plan would be scuppered if an enemy agent found out… and then, Hitler’s prize agent, “The Needle,” does just that. Hunted by MI5, he leads a murderous trail across Britain to a waiting U-Boat. But he hasn’t planned for a storm-battered island, and the remarkable young woman who lives there.
One for the Money (Stephanie Plum #1)
by Janet Evanovich
"I'm telling you, it's fu**ing hard to be classy.”
(Novel) Now the gold-standard in the chick-lit, beach-reading series category, the adventures of bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is an easy, fun read (and now a major movie with Katherine Heigl). Evanovich single-handedly created a runaway train of a phenomenon with the series, and you can bet that her protagonist inspired more than a handful of women to get out of their comfort zones and find more adventure in their lives.
The Valleys of the Assassins: And Other Persian Travels
by Freya Stark
(Memoir) Hailed as a classic upon its first publication in 1934, this book firmly established Freya Stark as one of her generation's most intrepid explorers. It chronicles her travels into Luristan, the mountainous terrain nestled between Iraq and present-day Iran, often with only a single guide and on a shoestring budget.
Stark writes engagingly of the nomadic peoples who inhabit the region's valleys and brings to life the stories of the ancient kingdoms of the Middle East, including that of the Lords of Alamut, a band of hashish-eating terrorists whose stronghold in the Elburz Mountains Stark was the first to document for the Royal Geographical Society. Her account is at once a highly readable travel narrative and a richly drawn, sympathetic portrait of a people told from their own compelling point of view.
What other books can you recommend that feature fearless (or at least courageous), adventurous women? Leave your picks in the comments below.
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More and more Facebook is becoming a place where I go not to update the world on what I'm doing, but to find interesting and new ideas, including book recommendations. Here are the top Facebook pages about books that you should be following if you're looking for book recommendations, reviews or just inspiring memes.
Sneak peeks at new books, interviews with authors and book recommendations. Basically a wide variety of book-related news and inspiration
This page is more for readers, and less about books. Their articles are often controversial, but always thought-provoking.
Book Riot's fresh, sarcastic style makes it one of my favorite book sites, and I actually look forward to getting their newsletters on Sundays. Check them out — they make being a book lover seem almost cool.
Also a print magazine, BookPage's mission is to "spread the news about the best new books." So essentially, it acts as a machine to fill up my Amazon wish list(s). Lots of giveaways, author interviews and literary goodness.
I love the idea of thousands of strangers sharing what they're reading every Friday (as much as I love sharing what I read with them). FridayReads will give you enough material for a lifetime of reading.
Anyone who uses the Goodreads site or app will find their Facebook posts a nice complement to their other content. Author birthdays and check the comments in their various "What are you reading?" posts to discover new reads.
Literature Is My Utopia
A little more intellectual & "heady," LIMU shares lots of inspirational quotes and old-timey author photos.
Again, another place for readers, not just book lovers. Their online community is smart and passionate; reading the comments is as enlighting as the posts themselves.
Keep up-to-date on the books that everyone is talking about. Includes "links to recent author interviews, reviews, and book picks, as well as conversations about what you're reading, the future of publishing, and other lit-ish links."
A more humorous approach for book lovers. Lots of memes, links, giveaways and LOLs.
Where do you go on Facebook to get your book fix? Let us know in the comments.
Spiritual getaways are about stepping (or hiking, kayaking or even leaping your way) out of your comfort zone. In a way, all Outdoor Book Club trips are about this. But if you're really looking for a way to reach your best self, to learn and practice your higher values (and then take those values back to your every day life), here's a list of book ideas that would make great girlfriend getaway trips (or else I can plan it for you):
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
As women, it's really hard for us to embrace our imperfections in a world that requires us to be perfect at beauty, sex, motherhood, careers, cooking, exercise and decorating our kids birthday parties. Brown teaches us how to let go of that need to be perfect all the time, and just embrace our best selves. I think the subtitle says it all: "Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are."
Here's one of my favorite quotes from The Gifts of Imperfection:
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection.
Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.
Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.”
Discussing the themes and lessons of this book with your women friends might be just the thing you need to jumpstart your life. Be sure to check out Brown's TEDtalk on the power of vulnerability, one of the most popular TEDtalks of all time, for a sneak peek of her message.
A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
This is a book I turn to again and again. Years ago I highlighted some of my favorite passages in it, and whenever I'm feeling overwhelmed by managing all the details of my life, this book reminds me that I am not my problems. Here's just a sample:
“Give up defining yourself - to yourself or to others. You won't die. You will come to life. And don't be concerned with how others define you. When they define you, they are limiting themselves, so it's their problem. Whenever you interact with people, don't be there primarily as a function or a role, but as the field of conscious Presence. You can only lose something that you have, but you cannot lose something that you are.”
(Hell, I'm going to go pick it up again right now.) It was one of those books that changed the world when Oprah featured it in her spirituality workshop several years ago. Millions tuned in, and millions still turn to Tolle (including his other book, The Power of Now) to find peace and to center themselves. This would be an amazing book to read while on an outdoor retreat with several other women.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
This book touched millions of lives, inspiring women to own their pasts and do something amazing with their present. Strayed's cut-to-the-core writing style paired with humor and the classic tale of the heroine's journey make this an excellent read for a woodsy or backpacking retreat with just the girls. Here's a quote from the book to inspire you:
“I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
This classic nonfiction book has been an invaluable guide as many women pass through the gates of middle age and beyond, making it the perfect book to discuss with your oldest and dearest friends. Lindbergh's writing is full of grace, clarity and lyrical language. She offers sage advice on aging, love (and marriage) as well as peace, solitude and the meaning of contentment. Here's one of my favorite quotes:
“Don't wish me happiness
I don't expect to be happy all the time...
It's gotten beyond that somehow.
Wish me courage and strength and a sense of humor.
I will need them all.”
Yes. Yes I will. Another great book for the outdoors, this one read on the shores of a body of water. If you're not near an ocean, a lake or river will do just fine.
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
And why not just throw a fiction book (and a damn fine one at that) in the mix? Not typically considered a "spiritual" book, there are plenty of quotes from this bestseller by John Green that are great for reflecting on the fleeting nature of life and love. My favorites include:
“As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”
And then there's this one:
“I'm in love with you," he said quietly.
"Augustus," I said.
"I am," he said. He was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. "I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
And my all-time favorite:
“The world is not a wish-granting factory.”
*SIGH* This is a book that feels amazing when you read it. A lot of my friends said they cried when they read it, so discussing it around a campfire makes a lot of sense.
Finding the right location
In addition to finding the right book, you're going to have to find the right place -- Vegas, Cancun and other hotspot girlfriend getaways just aren't going to cut it when you're trying to get more in touch with the present and your higher, more spiritual self (not to mention read). For my money, no place in the world can compete with Northern Michigan, especially in the summer and fall — and ABC's morning show apparently agrees. But even if you have to escape to your backyard bonfire to get right with yourself, a spiritual retreat doesn't need to be anywhere exotic. Wherever your favorite books and your favorite people end up gathered together will do just fine.
What are your favorite spirituality books (or books that offer spiritual guidance that you return to) or locations?
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I've been thinking about some of my favorite quotes from the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. The novel is compelling not only because it's a story about a woman on a journey — both a very real journey and a very metaphorical journey — but because the writing is so crisp, tough-but-loveable, so good.
Here are a few of my favorites:
“The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back.”
Cheryl said this as her mother was dying. This quote also reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Anne Lamott, "make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish." Both of these quotes point to a certain fatality about life.
“It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B.
It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
I'll never forget my first visit to the U.P (Upper Peninsula for your non-Michigan folks) where there was no cell phone coverage. Those days I had a Blackberry (it must have been around 2007 or 08), and I remember the panic I felt as the bars slowly disappeared into nothing. But after just an hour or two marveling at the unspoiled wilderness, I came to love how pristine the woods, water and air were in the U.P. This quote reminds me of picking blueberries along the same river where Hemingway fished, and how free I felt doing it.
“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I'd done something I shouldn't have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I'd done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done? What if I'd actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”
God if I could tattoo this quote on my arm (it's a little long, even for my entire back) I'd do it. The last three sentences strike me as particularly powerful. We're all terrible people who have, at times, done terrible things. Most of the time we're good-hearted people: we're kind and friendly and don't text when we drive. But we've all been to dark places and done dark things (and I'm not talking about traffic infractions here). And sometimes it's helpful to remember that those dark places and things made us who we are today. Sure, we could spend the rest of our lives feeling the crushing weight of guilt bearing down on all the other wonderful things in our lives. But it's probably better if we instead strive for redemption. It's all any of us can do.
A book doesn’t have to be about hiking, camping or surviving an intense experience in order to be enjoyed outdoors, but here at the Outdoor Book Club, I have a few favorites that specifically are about nature and the outdoors (and a few that are on my to-read list). Next time you’re headed out into the woods, make sure you grab (or download) one of these favorites and throw it in your pack.
Wild: From Lost To Found On the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
This was one of the first books I read in my book club from work, and we all loved it: A painfully honest memoir that recounts the solo trip up eleven-hundred miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s a story of failure, and redemption, and one of the first books to really inspire me to get outdoors in a completely different way. From Amazon:
At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State “and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise. But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.
Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods by Christine Byl
This one is on my to-read list – described as a “lively and lyrical account of one woman’s unlikely apprenticeship on a national-park trail crew,” it details Byl’s adventure and lessons learned about the outdoors, being a woman and how dedication and hard work can make all the difference. From Amazon:
Christine Byl first encountered the national parks the way most of us do: on vacation. But after she graduated from college, broke and ready for a new challenge, she joined a Glacier National Park trail crew as a seasonal “traildog” maintaining mountain trails for the millions of visitors Glacier draws every year. Byl first thought of the job as a paycheck, a summer diversion, a welcome break from “the real world” before going on to graduate school. She came to find out that work in the woods on a trail crew was more demanding, more rewarding—more real—than she ever imagined.
During her first season, Byl embraces the backbreaking difficulty of the work, learning how to clear trees, move boulders, and build stairs in the backcountry. Her first mentors are the colorful characters with whom she works—the packers, sawyers, and traildogs from all walks of life—along with the tools in her hands: axe, shovel, chainsaw, rock bar. As she invests herself deeply in new work, the mountains, rivers, animals, and weather become teachers as well. While Byl expected that her tenure at the parks would be temporary, she ends up turning this summer gig into a decades-long job, moving from Montana to Alaska, breaking expectations—including her own—that she would follow a “professional” career path.
Returning season after season, she eventually leads her own crews, mentoring other trail dogs along the way. In Dirt Work, Byl probes common assumptions about the division between mental and physical labor, “women’s work” and “men’s work,” white collars and blue collars. The supposedly simple work of digging holes, dropping trees, and blasting snowdrifts in fact offers her an education of the hands and the head, as well as membership in an utterly unique subculture. Dirt Work is a contemplative but unsentimental look at the pleasures of labor, the challenges of apprenticeship, and the way a place becomes a home.
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
I’ve loved Kingslover ever since I read The Poisonwood Bible when I was high school. She’s since written a lot more nonfiction, and this essay collection is an ode to the natural world. From Amazon:
From its opening parable gleaned from recent news about a lost child saved in an astonishing way, the book moves on to consider a world of surprising and hopeful prospects, ranging from an inventive conservation scheme in a remote jungle to the backyard flock of chickens tended by the author’s small daughter.
Whether she is contemplating the Grand Canyon, her vegetable garden, motherhood, adolescence, genetic engineering, TV-watching, the history of civil rights, or the future of a nation founded on the best of all human impulses, these essays are grounded in the author’s belief that our largest problems have grown from the earth’s remotest corners as well as our own backyards, and that answers may lie in those places, too. In the voice Kingsolver’s readers have come to rely on—sometimes grave, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately persuasive—Small Wonder is a hopeful examination of the people we seem to be, and what we might yet make of ourselves.
Into The Forest by Jean Hegland
And now we come to our first novel, and another book that I haven’t read, but it’s at the top of my Wish List. From Amazon:
Set in the near-future, Into the Forest is a powerfully imagined novel that focuses on the relationship between two teenage sisters living alone in their Northern California forest home.
Over 30 miles from the nearest town, and several miles away from their nearest neighbor, Nell and Eva struggle to survive as society begins to decay and collapse around them. No single event precedes society’s fall. There is talk of a war overseas and upheaval in Congress, but it still comes as a shock when the electricity runs out and gas is nowhere to be found. The sisters consume the resources left in the house, waiting for the power to return. Their arrival into adulthood, however, forces them to reexamine their place in the world and their relationship to the land and each other.
Reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, Into the Forest is a mesmerizing and thought-provoking novel of hope and despair set in a frighteningly plausible near-future America.
Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range by Margaret Emerson
This is a book I want to base my first trip on – even thought it’s about the Colorado Front Range, its lessons in contemplative hiking are applicable to any outdoor setting. A must-read for the spiritually-minded outdoorswoman. From Amazon:
More than just a hiking guide, Contemplative Hiking Along the Colorado Front Range is for those who want to experience a new appreciation of the land and nature. Learn how to read nature s omens for deeper insights, cultivate your inner wisdom, and develop a keener awareness of the nuances of flora and fauna in every season along the Front Range. The trails described in this book are located along the foothills and mountain areas north of Ft. Collins to southwest of Denver s suburbs. Ecopsychologist Margaret Emerson offers detailed contemplative activities and practices for each specific trail to enable you to feel more grounded, more present, and more in tune with the rhythms of the natural world. This book contains dozens of beautiful black and white photos taken from the featured hikes. You can write your impressions and answer the questions posed in each chapter directly in the book, as it is set up “journal-style”. This books makes a wonderful gift for the nature-lover or hiker in your life. Among the themes and activities are: Spring Equinox Meditation, Landscape and Mood, The Value and Sacredness of Land Pawnee Buttes, Feeling Your Place in Time, The Spirit of a Place, How to Do a Medicine Walk, You and the New Cosmology, Autumn Equinox Non-Attachment and Letting G, Art, Nature, and the Subconscious, and much, much more…
Pilgrim At Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Another book I read as a young adult, and influenced me as a writer. From Goodreads:
An exhilarating meditation on nature and its seasons—a personal narrative highlighting one year’s exploration on foot in the author’s own neighborhood in Tinker Creek, Virginia. In the summer, Dillard stalks muskrats in the creek and contemplates wave mechanics; in the fall she watches a monarch butterfly migration and dreams of Arctic caribou. She tries to con a coot; she collects pond water and examines it under a microscope. She unties a snake skin, witnesses a flood, and plays ‘King of the Meadow’ with a field of grasshoppers.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
I first heard about this book from my good friend and co-worker Lynne, who describes it as “one of my most favorite books.” Hemmingway called Markham one of his most favorite writers – read this memoir to find out why. From Amazon:
Markham’s West with the Night was originally published in the early 1940s and disappeared, only to be rediscovered and reprinted in the 1980s when it became a smash hit. This latest incarnation is a lavishly illustrated edition. Though Markham is known for setting an aviation record for a solo flight across the Atlantic from East to West-hence the title-she was also a bush pilot in Africa, sharing adventures with Blor Blixen and Denys Finch-Hatton of Out of Africa fame. Hemingway, who met Markham during his safari days, dubbed the book “bloody wonderful.”
What are some of your favorite books about/by women, set in the great outdoors? Leave your answers in the comments below – because I can never have too many books on my nightstand or wishlist.
Jill Hinton Wolfe