On our backpacking vacations, I am always a bookworm. We listen to audiobooks in the car on the way to whatever our destination is. Of course, I also pile on the books into my kindle to enjoy on hiking breaks. When we backpack in the winter, we tend to have a lot of extra time bundled up in our sleeping bags in our tent since, well, the sun sets early in winter and all. So, I often become an even bigger reading fiend on winter backpacking trips. I certainly covered several pages on our recent trip to Big Bend National Park!

Unintentionally, I chose exclusively young adult fiction and non-fiction for this trip, but I think there’s something for everyone on this list. After all, A Monster Calls is on the list. (Yes, I have strong opinions on this book!)

Big Bend Backpacking Bookworm:  Non-Fiction Snapshot Reviews

Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Bréne Brown

The irony of reading a book about, well, braving the wilderness in a bonafide wilderness was not lost on me. Brown’s book, of course, was less about the literal wilderness surrounding me than the metaphoric landscape of our own lives. What kind of people do we want to be? What does it mean to belong? Can we belong to people? Do we? More importantly, do you belong to yourself?

I enjoyed her stories about her life, her authenticity, and the research that she weaves throughout the book. The writing is very accessible, and she’s certainly proven that an academic can write a book that lay people would want to read. I enjoyed it, even if the aspiring academic in me wanted some of the deeper research findings.

Dare to Be Kind: How Extraordinary Compassion Can Change Our World by Lizzie Velasquez

I vaguely remember watching a snippet of a new story about a young woman who had used her humiliation at being unknowingly dubbed the world’s ugliest woman (when she was in high school no less) and turned it into a mission to bring more kindness into the world. I didn’t watch much of the interview, but Velasquez’ story is hardly forgettable. When I saw her book, I thought it would be a good read.

From my perspective, Velasquez is a better speaker than she is a writer, but we can’t all be equally skilled in all forms of communication. (I’m a better writer than a speaker.) I was fascinated by how she decided to be a motivational speaker and basically taught herself how to be one. What a crazy, inspiring story, notwithstanding her health concerns and generally upbeat attitude. I enjoyed reading more about her life and her approach to living it, but I also sometimes felt very much like I was reading about people who just would never in a million years be people I’d read about (e.g., sections discussing meeting the Kardashians).   

You Can Buy Happiness (And Its Cheap): How One Woman Radically Simplified Her Life and You Can Too by Tammy Strobel

I never know when I’ve decided to read a minimalism book which level it’ll be written to:  someone who needs to be told to stop going out to lunch every day or someone who already has significantly reduced his or her footprint and purged possessions. I’m in the latter group. As such, I don’t really find reading suggestions about forgoing shopping trips over lunch to improve my finances and become happier as a result. Still, this book and books like it have merit and purpose:  we all start somewhere and need guidance from wherever we are.

Strobel does include some research through her book, and I enjoyed that immensely. I also liked her discussion about moving into a Tiny House—something my husband and I discussed endlessly and nearly pursued before our land situation fell apart. More than anything, though, Strobel talks about “right sizing” your house. For the life my husband and I live now, our house is both too big in some ways and too small in others. I imagine I’ll talk more about that later but we’ve mostly hit the “right size” for us:  904 square feet. We try to make thoughtful purchases that are intended to endure and to be both beautiful and functional.

If you’re earlier in your process of managing debt and tackling clutter, this could be a good book for you. If you’re farther along and interested in more research about minimalism and happiness, this book likely isn’t going to go into the depth you’re looking for.

Happiness: A Philosopher’s Guide by Frédéric Lenoir

I’ve had this book on my to-read list for years but have avoided it because I have painful memories of philosophy courses in college. Painful. I decided to bite the bullet and read this one on vacation, and I’m rather glad I did. I must be getting old. Lenoir covers everything from Aristotle to modern neuroscience, including Eastern philosophers. In some places, his writing does become just a bit too this-dregs-up-painful-memories much for me. Still, I was surprised by how fascinated I was by the different approaches, writings, and thoughts of these famous (alas) men. I even wrote down a few philosophers whose works I might like reading based on the descriptions in the book. My 19-year-old self would be horrified. I am getting old.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari (Audibook)

My husband picked out this book because he likes Aziz Ansari, and I agreed to listen to it because it promised sociological research. I like sociology, generally. Ansari heavily focuses on dating. Since we are married, I may have joked that it seemed weird listening to a book about how to date when my husband and I have no intention on ever dating again.

I would have preferred a book focusing more on the sociology and less on some of the random comedic asides, but I didn’t dislike them either. I particularly enjoyed the cross-cultural elements where Ansari went to Japan and discussed what dating was like there. Since I’m happiness research interests me, I also found his discussion of expectations and adaptations in a romantic relationship fascinating as well. Overall, the book was decent overall, but not my favorite.

Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found on the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant (Audiobook).

This book has made it onto the last three of our road trips across the country, but, for whatever reason, we never actually listened to it. So, we checked it out again and made sure to listen to the book first. Given the discussion of living more sustainably, I was expecting more of a book about gardening, homesteading, and environmentalism. Instead, the book is a fascinating deep dive into a culture that’s fairly alien to my own:  the deep, deep, deep south, specifically the Mississippi Delta.

Grant includes many hilarious anecdotes and characters that make his tale feel vivid and exciting. Other stories are more somber from my point of view. What Grant does best, however, is explain the incredibly complex layers of racial histories and racism in the South. His examples were much more nuanced than I would have ever expected to be possible even as the rather obvious problems of systematic institutional racism and generational poverty are definite and present factors.

What we expected when we checked out this book was a couple of New York transplants learning how to live off the land in the Mississippi delta, but we instead have a deeper understanding of a complicated area in our country filled with complicated but lovable people (compartmentalize! Grant urges). Alas, we have no more information about gardening than when we started, but I do rather want to learn to hunt deer.   

The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz (Audiobook)

Loehr and Schwartz discuss elite athletes and corporate businessmen predominantly in their book, but the lessons are applicable to everyday folks or people who have stressful professions with few breaks (like teachers). In fact, I picked this book up just as much for me as for my husband, who complains about his lack of time and his stress levels a regular basis. Lehr and Schwartz focus on how to better manage energy throughout the day rather than time because energy is the more critical resource.

On our road trip, my husband and I paused at various points in the audiobook to answer quizzes together. I was actually a little surprised by how low some of my husband’s self-ratings were in certain categories. We brainstormed some solutions to a few problems we identified, and he’s been working on them since we got back. I think the book was really helpful for him, and that’s good enough for me.

Big Bend Backpacking Bookworm:  Young-Adult Fiction Snapshot Reviews

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

Conor wakes to find a monster in his backyard. To his surprise, the monster isn’t the one that has been haunting his dreams. The monster—an ancient yew tree from a nearby graveyard—wants a truly dark terrible thing from Conor:  the truth. Conor’s increasing social isolation and dogged refusal to accept the reality of his mother’s condition are somber and painful. As the story clips along mercilessly toward the inevitable conclusion, Conor learns the power of stories, including the ones we tell ourselves, the ones we refuse to believe, and the new ones we must learn to write.

I might go so far as to suggest that if you do not love this book and find it powerful and heart wrenching and profoundly moving that you do not have a soul. Maybe. Such a claim is certainly a touch hyperbolic, but only by a hair’s breadth.

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

In one terrible evening, Etta Spencer loses everything that’s ever mattered to her life. A glowering stranger with a mysterious agenda hauls her back through time. As it happens, Etta has a powerful legacy, and it’s not her ability to play the violin. Instead, she can travel through time—and she finds herself trapped there in a desperate battle… yeah, against good and evil and all that jazz. She also finds some romantic adventure.

I enjoyed the catches of history and details in the book, and I found the overall plot interesting enough to want to keep reading the book (and it’s a lengthy one). The world building takes a significant amount of time, and sometimes the story drags a bit. In my view, the romance is rather overblown (but the maybe less so for a young adult crowd). The characters are fairly flat without much setting them apart or really coming alive. If I had known this was part of a series and that the book would end on the cliffhanger it did without resolving much of anything, I might have stopped reading the book. I don’t know yet whether I’ll ready the subsequent one. On one level, it was interesting, but I can’t rate it highly overall.

Edenbrooke by Julianne Donaldson

My friend Alexandra over at Simply Alexandra recommended this book to me a couple of years ago. She knew that I loved Jane Austen and young-adult literature, so she suspected I’d enjoy this book. Regrettably, it took me years to be able to borrow the book because it wasn’t available at either of the two libraries I belong to. This is why you have multiple library cards, people! Well, after a wait years in the making, I devoured Edenbrooke on my backpacking trip.

After the death of her mother, Marianne’s father sends her to live with her grandmother at Bath and away from her twin sister. At her sister’s invitation, she leaps at the chance to escape Bath. She’s eager return to the countryside even if it means taking lessons in how to be a lady. Unfortunately, her journey to the estate is rather more fateful than expected. After an attack by highway bandits, Marianne meets a stranger in the inn where sparks and jokes fly.

The rest of the novel is much a traditional romantic plot of will-they-or-won’t-they where the question isn’t much of a question. The only wrinkle is that much of the misunderstanding and romantic tension is closer to home than some other wealthy young woman. Marianne’s own twin sister Cecily has expressed intentions of marrying Marianne’s love interest.  

The story’s setting is during the regency time period. Jane Austen fans will see some snatches of the time period, including the pump room in Bath. Still, I sometimes found our heroine Marianne a bit modern in her sensibilities to be entirely true to the Austen time period even as I loved her and found her hilarious. (And she is hilarious, spunky, and delightful!) The book itself is charming. Moreover, the Austenite in me is not so rabid as to do more than raise an eye at moments I found questionable.

Flight by Sherman Alexie (Audiobook)

Zits is a 15-year-old foster kiddo who is lost, filled with rage he isn’t sure how to direct, in trouble with the law, and about to commit mass murder. (Or is he?) Zits catapults through time into the bodies of various individuals in violent scenarios. As he lives their lives, he struggles with big ideas about what violence, hate, peace, and love accomplish. I loved Zits even when he doesn’t love himself—and, believe me, he doesn’t. His perspective is as cynical as you could expect a kiddo on his 20th foster home whose mother died at six, whose family abandoned him, and who never knew his alcoholic father. Still, he’s also bright and funny. In my book, the balance is just right.

I’ve always wanted to read a Sherman Alexie book and feel embarrassed that I haven’t; I enjoyed it immensely for exactly what the book is:  a fast-paced young adult read about hate, love, and redemption wrapped up precisely with some science fiction here, historical fiction there, some tragedy here, a bit of comedy there, and a fantastic bildungsroman.

Books in Progress (But Not Finished) During Vacation:

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire by Kyle Harper

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