Book review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

After hearing Cheryl Strayed speak last fall, I knew I wanted to read more of her work, and especially her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed was one of those speakers who, through her own depth of vulnerable sharing, quickly makes you reflect on how you might live a more authentic version of your own life. I knew that the journey recounted in Wild wasn't the only foundation for her insights and wisdom, but it seemed like a big piece of it, and I was intrigued.

I hesitated back then because the book spends not just a little time talking about how Strayed experienced and processed her mother's death from cancer; I was in the midst of my mom's final months of life and then processing her death from cancer, and I couldn't really handle reading about those things too. Recently I felt more ready for it, and though it was still hard at times, I'm glad I dove in.

Wild is a pure and beautiful telling of a rough and uncertain journey.

I say pure because Strayed has no agenda to pursue, no world view to push, no unifying message to hammer us with; it's just her story in all of its ups and downs, joy and fear, resistance and risk-taking. In some ways, it's just her taking a long walk. On the reason that humans create such experiences for themselves, she writes:

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for 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 say beautiful because the language and narrative tone are so good at bringing us into the moment and letting us feel along with the author each surprise, disappointment and victory along the way. There is poetry in her descriptions of the landscape, and she makes the sights and sounds of the places she visited and the people she encountered come alive. In her toughest moments we can feel the anxiety, worry or frustration, and when her body is worn down by her gear or her pace, we can feel our own heavy loads just as acutely.

I say rough and uncertain not only because that's Strayed's experience of the Pacific Crest Trail as she hiked it, but because of all the rough edges in her story that are woven in to the larger fabric of this trip. Relationships, friendships, family dynamics, poverty, drug addiction, sexuality, body image, self care, excessive consumerism, rape culture, our experience of the natural world, finding comfort in silence -- these topics and more are all along for the ride and explored well. In the same way that Strayed never quite knew where her campsite would be along the trail each night, we never quite know what such an intense journey of exploration will bring out on a given day, and this brought its own kind of suspense to the story.

But over the miles the roughness is smoothed out and clarity, strength and resolve seep in. We find ourselves rooting for Strayed not only to hit her progress goals on the trail, but also to find what she is looking for inside, and in her life. When we worry about her, it's not just that her hiking boots are wearing out or that a bear might ruin her day, but that she might step away from being true to herself in all the ways she has discovered how to be.

The end result is so satisfying, and it's not hard to see why Wild became a bestselling memoir and then a major motion picture. The feeling of reading it is still with me days after finishing, and I'm grateful to Cheryl Strayed for bringing us along on such a intimately transformative adventure.

Book review: Delta-v by Daniel Suarez

Ever since I picked up Daniel Suarez's Daemon in 2011 (mini-review here), I've eagerly awaited each and every work from him since, and I haven't been disappointed. He has continued to generate fascinating explorations of technology, culture and social trends in his fictional but very realistic novels that always feel like they can see about a decade or two ahead into the future. Our future.

Suarez's latest work, Delta-v, is no exception.

It's a sweeping, fast-paced book that dives into the economic and physical realities of commercial space exploration, experienced through the adventures of a crew of astronauts and the super-rich business mogul funding their journey. The stakes are high -- imminent collapse of the global economy, catastrophic climate change effects, war and famine are all just around the corner -- and the potential rewards are great, but this isn't just another "put up a colony on Mars and save humanity" space adventure.

As is his reputation, Suarez has done in-depth research into the problems and even fundamentally flawed thinking behind most mainstream approaches to getting humanity into space and on to other planets. The infeasibility of deep space travel, the carcinogens in Martian soil, the problem of settling other planets, the menacing details of legal contracts that a space explorer might sign before launch...it's all there like a slow-motion massacre of more standard sci-fi novel plots. The version of human success in space that Delta-v teases out over the chapters looks very different than what you might expect, and it makes some sense.

"If you solve the problems of living on Mars, then you've only solved the Mars problem, but if we learn to build habitats in open space, then we have solved the entire future of the human race." This from the billionaire character who is a darkly-rendered combination of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, talking to the other space race players in a panel conversation that feels like it could happen on a SXSW stage any moment now. (There's an argument to be made that humans have no business taking our reckless imperialism over the natural world into space given how badly we've messed up the first planet we were given, but that's for another time.)

Unlike some of Suarez's other books that have looked at the challenges and dangers of AI, nanotech, government overreach in tech, genetic engineering and more, the space focus of this book might initially feel a little less accessible or relevant to everyday life. But as the novel unfolds and it begins to ring more and more true that so much time and money is already being invested in a similar kind of space race in real life, you can't help but feel like it's a story we're destined to be a part of sooner rather than later.

Delta-v is a lovely mix of science, adventure, mystery, social commentary and celebration of the best and worst of what humans can do for (or to) each other. There are a few times where the book seems confused about being character-driven or plot-driven or both, and some of the time invested in a particular character's backstory or a particular plot point's intricate geeky details didn't always pay off. But I still really enjoyed the universe Suarez crafted and the story that unfolded, if only because it feels so familiar to the one we live in now.

If you've enjoyed Suarez's other works, or novels from Andy Weir, Neal Stephenson or similar authors, I highly recommend checking out Delta-v.

 

Note: I was provided an advance copy of Delta-v by the publisher, but was not otherwise compensated or influenced in my writing of this review. Some links may be to affiliate websites so that I receive a very small percentage of the sale if you choose to buy from them.

Podcast listening

Whether it's while walking the dog, running an errand or passing time on a trip, podcast listening is something I'm doing almost every day now. I think podcasts have largely replaced audio books and broadcast radio for me, and listening is one of my favorite ways to challenge my thinking, understand things I'm not familiar with, and spark my own creativity.

I recently started using Overcast to manage and listen to podcasts, and highly recommend it. I was getting really tired of the Apple-built podcast listening features in iTunes and iOS, and Overcast is a breath of fresh air. The Smart Speed feature in particular is pretty amazing.

After a 12-year hiatus since I produced The Richmond News Review, I've also started doing some podcasting again myself at Richmond Matters. It's again about topics of interest to my local community, and while the show is still taking shape you can find the first few interviews under the Richmond Matters Podcast in your favorite podcast directory (for convenience: Apple/iTunes, Google, Stitcher).

In any case, these are some of the podcasts that I'm enjoying on a regular basis:

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Andy Weir's Artemis

I recently finished reading Andy Weir's new novel, Artemis, and really enjoyed it. I've been immersing myself in political non-fiction lately (reviews coming soon) so I really needed a fun, smart page-turner to balance things out, and Artemis fit the bill perfectly.

If you're not already familiar with Weir, he wrote the bestselling book The Martian (mentioned here) which then became a surprisingly great 2015 theatrical version starring Matt Damon. It was so well-written, engaging and scientifically grounded that high school physics teachers convinced him to release a profanity-free version that they could teach their courses from.

Similar to The Martian, the book centers on a smart, extraordinarily resourceful main character who seems to be in an uphill battle against life-or-death surrounding circumstances from start to finish. Unlike The Martian, for this new main character the circumstances are much more derived from her life choices and penchant for non-traditional ways of generating income, and the experiences that unfold are much more intertwined with the choices and personalities of other people.

Continue reading "Andy Weir's Artemis"

Mini book reviews

It's been a good year of reading so far. Here are some mini-reviews of what I've been taking in. As always I’ve linked to an online purchase option (with a small referral fee coming to me if you actually buy), but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first.

Purity: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen

I hadn't read any of Franzen's work before picking this up, but I'm planning to now. Purity's storyline takes on several generations of culture, world events and political-technological evolution while remaining a very personal and rich study of a few particular relationships. I enjoyed the way journalism, social media and other tools of the digital age were woven into the plot without becoming perfunctory. Some parts of the book felt a bit rambling or under-developed, but overall I found the writing to be really compelling and the book as a whole a moving and rewarding read.

Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble by Dan Lyons

I have to pace myself when it comes to reading "insider looks at life in Silicon Valley" books. Partly because I spend my professional life working in tech and I don't always want to read about the tech industry for fun, and partly because it seems like too many of those books are thrown together to create a quick payday and/or ego boost for the author, without a lot of substance to make them worthwhile.

When I saw Dan Lyons` book I thought the concept sounded interesting and fun: "old media" journalist tries to join in the "new media" tech world, hilarity ensues. I also thought it would be interesting to learn more about HubSpot; I've been hearing about the company years now but I could never quite understand why what they did was of any value. So I dived in.

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Review of The Roost Stand

wrote earlier that The Roost Laptop Stand is a part of my daily carry when I'm working away from home. I've been using it since 2014 when I started working regularly from co-working spaces, coffee shops and other places. For the last few months I've been using the second generation of The Roost Stand, so I want to share a few more thoughts on it here.

(Disclaimer: the Roost team sent me a free stand after they saw the Lifehacker post featuring my bag contents. I am not being compensated for this review and am under no obligation to provide positive commentary or any commentary at all.)

In case you're not familiar with what the Roost stand is or does: it elevates your laptop screen to the height at which you might use a traditional computer monitor. This means that long periods of time staring at a screen don't necessarily lead to a sore neck or back from being hunched over. Here's what it looks like in use:

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Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs

Notes on three books I've had a chance to read recently:

Sevenevesby Neal Stephenson

I've noted here before how much I enjoy Neal Stephenson's writing and storytelling, and Seveneves did not depart from that trend. It mixes together a few of my favorite things: science fiction with attention to realism, thought-provoking end-of-the-world scenarios, and a witty narrative that makes the reader work a bit to put all the pieces together. And while mostly plot-driven, Seveneves manages to do quite a bit of philosophizing about the nature of humanity and what we hold dear, not to mention the lengths we'll go to to preserve that. I will say that I enjoyed reading the first part of the book more than the second, but several days after finishing when the whole story had had a chance to marinate a bit, I was grateful for the completeness of two together, different as they were. Seveneves imagines a universe worth spending some time in. Continue reading "Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs"

Zero to One

I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Thiel's Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

It's one of the few "business books" I've read recently that incorporates anything resembling a coherent global ethic into thinking about what it means to create and grow a business. Beyond that, he gets into some great reflections on human creativity, optimism and pessimism about the future, and investing.

I didn't always agree with Thiel's views or counsel, but I found his thinking to be clear and his insights helpful, especially on what it takes to build something that makes a substantial and/or lasting difference in the world. Read through the lens of my past experience creating a startup tech business and my current thinking about what I can do for the world in the future, there were some lovely and/or cringe-worthy "ah-ha" moments.

I highlighted many passages as I read, here are a few that stand out:

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The Martian by Andy Weir

I recently finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. It was one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I've read recently, and so I can't help but recommend it here.

The story is a kind of Robinson Crusoe/Cast Away extreme survival adventure that happens in space, and will especially appeal to fans of MacGyver-style resourcefulness with some realistic science and geeky tech explanations thrown in. It's also pretty funny at times, and strangely moving at others. Check it out.

Blue Apron review

For several months now Kelly and I have been trying out Blue Apron, the service that delivers fresh ingredients and recipes to your door so you can make amazing meals. Bottom line: it's been responsible for a wonderful shift in our cooking and eating habits at home.

Shaking Beef Prep

Before Blue Apron, we were in a bit of a rut when it came to cooking at home. Both of us have found enjoyment at various times in the process of cooking, especially for other people. But at times we also faced a failure of imagination, discipline and/or motivation when it came to planning meals, going to the grocery, and taking the time to make something interesting or healthy. Yes, these are clearly problems of privilege; in a few minutes we could easily pick something from a cookbook, get to the grocery store that's less than 2 miles away, buy some stuff and a few minutes after that be home cooking - pretty much the definition of convenient and easy living.

So when I first heard about a service that would ship fresh ingredients to our door along with recipes to prepare them, I was skeptical. Surely we could just make ourselves put a little more time and energy into doing what we already knew had to be done, right?

But we decided to try it out after reading a review online, if only to say we'd experimented with this crazy new use of the Internet.

The result? Delicious, interesting, beautiful, fun, healthy food:

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