Hillary’s Narcissistic Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees and Falling

I spend time in the woods each day, wandering around with my dog looking at nature and, more importantly, hitting enough steps to feel like I have earned the right to eat food. I have been walking in these same woods for many years, but after the COVID lockdown in 2020, I started walking every day and logging more miles and even more bug bites that keep me awake at night itching and frantically applying hydrocortisone. People often warn me about walking in the woods alone—worried I could get abducted or eaten by an alligator—but instead the real danger is that I am slowly being eaten alive by bugs, and I am concerned there is a metamorphosis type scenario on my horizon, and then how will I ever find love?

When a friend recommended the book The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, I decided to read it because I am a nature girl and an intellectual who reads nonfiction for fun. I even thought about how it will be a great book to listen to at warp speed while peacefully looking up at the leaves rustling in the breeze and then tripping over an exposed root. This book is fascinating, and I have learned that trees have friends and even mate, which made me jealous, and that some trees, like beeches, do not reach sexual maturity until they are 80 to 150 years old, just like most billionaires.

The narrator reminds me of the announcer on a ride at Epcot—the place where drunk intellectuals go on rides, pretending to our children that a ride about agriculture is awesome, but also when we get off, next stop, Mexico! The book is a well written biology text, and what I have remembered is how much I hated biology, which is why I did not become a doctor or any other job that actually pays and also why I got divorced from my ex-husband, who is a biologist. It is the reason for our dissolution: it’s not you, it’s your field. I also remembered that maybe I am not an intellectual. I am smart and somewhat well read, but I would probably trade a reasonable number of IQ points for a vanity project, like being super skinny without having to worry about what I eat.

I often come across trees that have fallen in my path, and I am amazed at how expansive they are when felled to the earth. Sometimes I see the scars where the tree’s enormous weight has cut holes into the dirt on impact, and I am thankful that I have not—yet—been murdered by a friendly, sexual tree. Trees make my walks possible by providing shade even in the summer when there is the most possibility for attracting bugs, so when I go in public in a bathing suit people probably think I have the measles. Also, the trees provide places for spider webs to connect across the trails. I take down approximately 150 spider webs per day with my face in the summer. That is how I keep my hair so thick and luxurious—it is full of spiders weaving new hair.

Besides this book about trees, I am also currently reading Falling by new author T.J. Newman. This book takes place almost entirely on an airplane and was given to me by a friend in the same manner as when somebody smells something terrible and says, oh gross here smell this. According to the back cover, this book is “a bullet train of a thriller” and “heart STOPPING!” The premise of Falling—and this is not a spoiler because it is on the jacket—is that someone has kidnapped the family of the pilot, Bill, and has threatened to kill them unless Bill crashes the plane with 144 souls on board. The kidnapper is not from America originally, but you can guess the region he comes from—it rhymes with whittle yeast.

At first, I was skeptical about the book, partly because it got published and the author was promoting the book on the morning shows, which is the only reason I write because I hope to eventually be interviewed on television. I was also skeptical because early in the book it does seem like a flight attendant manifesto to inform the public that some heroes wear polyester. They are not there just to serve us food—as if we think that when airlines stopped serving food twenty years ago the higher ups just forgot to fix the glitch and the attendants just keep getting on board—the flight attendants are in charge of the safety of the cabin and everyone in it once that plane is in the air.

Even if some of us might prefer that perhaps, especially in a situation that presents itself like in Falling, flight attendants seek help from a superior on the ground or maybe even poll the passengers to see if there is anyone onboard who has more training to deal with trauma, like a psychiatrist or a hair dresser.

Also, reading this book one might get the mistaken idea that airline passengers are not tremendous assholes who would sacrifice anyone for their own safety. I feel confident that if a person is unwilling to wear a mask on an airplane, they are probably not going to be willing to trust a pilot with a family being held hostage. Fuck you, Bill! I just coughed on a baby, you think I give a shit about your precious family?

Despite all of this, I found Falling almost impossible to put down. I kept turning pages and that is the sign of an interesting read. Even though it should be me in that clear acrylic chair across from Jeff Glor, I still recommend this book. Reading Falling has played a role in my growth as a writer. Now I know what people want, and I am going to start writing thrillers. I don’t have all the details worked out, but I think my first one will be titled Crawling, and it will involve an imminent attack by chiggers.

My protagonist taking forest selfies.

Hillary’s Narcissistic Book Review: The Queen’s Gambit and Parable of the Sower

I am in two active book clubs, and I know what you are thinking—does she live in a nursing home? No, but I do have a rich and exciting life that also includes watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy every weeknight. I joined the book clubs on accident, not even realizing I was in an actual club, just having drinks and then someone suggests a book and next thing I know I am being asked when we can schedule the next meeting. Some people get drunk and wake up the next morning pregnant or in a Vegas hotel room with a new husband they don’t recognize, but I wake up and realize I have been indoctrinated into a book club.

The last book I read for one club was The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, written in 1983 and now the basis for the popular Netflix series. I wanted to read Queen’s Gambit mostly so I could be the asshole who says, no I didn’t watch the show, but I did read the book.

I was concerned that I would not like this book because I do not know how to play chess. I can barely play checkers. Actually, I play all the games with squares at a toddler level. I have never won a game of Connect Four. My kids started beating me at tic tac toe when they were still being lovingly bottle fed. However, now that I have read Queen’s Gambit, which is drenched in detailed explanations of chess play, the vision of the board, the strategy, I think I am ready to compete in chess professionally.

At the beginning of the book, coinciding with Beth’s discovery of chess, she also becomes addicted to tranquilizers because her orphanage forces the green pills on all the kids to subdue the little bastards. I was never addicted to pills as an eight-year-old, but that does seem like the most fun time to try it. For starters, children have no responsibilities, like work, children of their own, or ageing parents to care for also at the same time. I don’t have many regrets from my childhood, but I wish I had experimented with drugs at an even earlier age. Maybe then I would be a world champion in something, like Hollywood Squares.  

For my other book club, we recently read Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, written in 1993 but set in an apocalyptic future. It is an epistolary novel told through the diary entries of the young protagonist, Lauren. The book starts in the year 2024 in California and describes an unimaginable world where the wealthiest few are hoarding the majority of resources and everyone else is left to try and not die. Many people are addicted to bizarre drugs and committing mass murder, space is being colonized by private companies, and police are more deplorable than dependable.

In 1993, the year Butler published Parable, I graduated from high school and then later that same year failed out of my first college. I was definitely not predicting 31 years into the future. I could not even predict how much money I would have tomorrow if I spent all the money in my account today. Butler depicts a close parallel to our world today, like when a Black male character seeks the police’s help after his sister and her family are murdered, and Lauren implores him not to go because she worries the police might kill him and steal his money.

Parable was written in the wake of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by police on a California highway and then the 1992 riots that erupted after the four officers were acquitted. As with all good science fiction, Parable is a caricature. It simply exaggerates what is already there, and the result is a future where all the masses are left struggling to survive because those in power have been allowed to jackknife the system. The moral might be that we should all work together, or we could end up in a dystopia with some people starving in the streets and many more struggling to get by while billionaires in cowboy hats blast into space for their vacay.

Meanwhile on the East Coast in 1993, I was way too high at a Widespread Panic concert in Boone, North Carolina listening to an endless jam that seemed, at the time, to last about 31 years. Now, I am a grown woman, but I am still waiting to reach psychological maturity. My bildungsroman has been a slow burn—a stream of consciousness life. The young women in these novels are both survivors and as someone who is also surviving, I think we have a lot in common.

My protagonist as a young woman doing the worm.

Hillary’s Narcissistic Book Review: Midnight Library, A Really Big Lunch, and Chin Music.

I’m currently reading two books at the same time because I’m a fucking intellectual. The first is Midnight Library by Matt Haig. Technically, I am listening to it as an audiobook, and I listen at 1.2x speed so the narrator sounds somewhat panicked at all times. As a self-proclaimed author, I can understand that probably someone like Haig does not want his readers to get through the book as fast as possible, like it is a chore. It probably took him at least a year of devotion to a desk, sculpting this thought-provoking book out of nothing, and I devour it in a series of fast paced walks in the woods.

Midnight Library is a novel about a woman who gets the chance to retry other versions of her life by examining her regrets and asking What if? The concept is sort of like the show Quantum Leap, which I used to watch on reruns after school. I am sure the intended audience for Quantum Leap was 13 years old girls who watch while shoving tater tots into their mouth. The main character in Midnight Library doesn’t work to set things right in history, she mostly just notices how things are often still wrong in her different lives, just in different ways.

In my own life, I have thought about what if I stayed at Appalachian State and got a degree in anthropology? In that life, maybe I would think it is acceptable to wear shirts with pockets and would be happily married to a very handsome woman. What if I had stayed in Austin? While I was there in the late 1990s, Mathew McConaughey was still single, high, and partying naked. I definitely would have played his bongos. Or anyone else’s.

Although, it is difficult to have regrets when I look at my life now. I am 46 and single with no real prospects, and I teach introductory English courses to unprepared college students who are reluctantly being fed into the capitalist machine. But in this life, I have a dog. Oh, and two children who are now teenagers and live like cave dwellers, only clawing their way out of their rooms to forage for food.

I am also reading, in actual print, A Really Big Lunch by Jim Harrison, which I am savoring in tiny bites because it makes me laugh, and I want to bask in his world of eating and travelling, just wandering around the woods and swimming out into the middle of harbors. Of course, Harrison’s main thread is about how he has all of this extra money from his writing career as an American poet, essayist, and prolific novelist—his novellas Legends of the Fall probably being the biggest meal ticket. I am still waiting for an offer for movie rights from my body of work. Maybe someone will want to make an epic from my essay about buying a dildo, and it will soon be streaming on Hulu and PornHub.

Harrison’s eponymous essay is about a 37-course lunch in Burgundy, France. Harrison notes that although the lunch was 37 courses and lasted 11 hours, they only served 13 different wines. I related to this leisurely lunch, thinking of my own life where I recently spent a Saturday dining on a two-course lunch in Jacksonville, Florida. I was also served one Bloody Mary, two White Claws, and then my check.

This past year, like many privileged white people, I have been reading a lot of theory (aka actual history) about racism in America. These books work well on fast speed in audio format because it makes sense for the narrator to seem frenzied as he or she tells about the oppression and murder of Black people in America since it is still happening, and fuck, we have got to get through narrating to this white lady who listens while working out her hamstrings, so that we can find some people who can actually make a difference. Harrison’s book is a definite departure—I don’t think there are any Black people in the book at all.

Big Lunch was recommended to me by an old friend, my former boss, and my one and only publishing client. His book, Chin Music, which is insightful and hilarious, sold almost a dozen copies, and he had to incur all the expenses, including me. I do not actually know how to market a book, and I don’t even do the formatting and design. Basically, the service I provide to my clients is I read the book and then make important suggestions, like maybe you should add a table of contents.

What I do not know how to do, which looking back is perhaps the most important part of the process, is to get people to buy the book. I do not know how people like Harrison get noticed initially. Maybe he just knew the right people and filled a void because we needed more books by white male authors in the 1970s. For the rest of us, it often feels like those moments in a dream when you are trying to scream and it seems impossible to make even the slightest noise. 

Harrison decided to write his first novel after falling off a cliff during a bird hunt, so I have considered that process. I am picturing a coyote and roadrunner type scenario—it is the only bird hunting on cliffs I am familiar with—I have several cans of paint and some sticks of TNT. We will see what happens. Also, if anyone reading this is looking for a publisher, I am totally available.

Chin Music available on Amazon. You should buy it.