Survivor – Chuck Palahnuik

What’s up Chuck?  The fourth novel from the Fight Club creator features a cult in which the remaining member is fighting with internal struggles, along with the pressure of the outside world as he is trying to avoid suicide and chemical inhalation (sound familiar?). While there are a few similarities between Palahnuik’s critically acclaimed novel, this is the story of Tender Branson, a 33 year-old man who is just trying to get his story out to prove his innocence.  He is telling his story into the ‘black box’ of a Jumbo jet, careening down onto Earth, the middle of the Outback, Australia, to be exact.  Branson hijacked the airplane, had the pilot land to let off passengers, then took off again to make the pilot parachute down to safety somewhere over the Pacific.  Branson had just a few hours to record his tale into the device before all four engines failed and sent him plunging to his death.

The story began with Branson in the small, secluded church community of the Creedish.  The oldest son’s are betrothed to young women of the elder’s choice, while all other males in the family are sent off in missionary labor in the real world.  The ‘missionaries’ work cash-only jobs, sending their paychecks back to the village, a kind of slavery in a sense.  The missionaries are forbidden to have sex, marry, have kids, they are only set up with menial jobs like house cleaners, and given a small apartment.  Tender was the second eldest son, by three minutes.  While his twin brother took a wife, Tender was sent into the wild city to work as a house keeper.  He knew how to take any kind of stain out of any kind of surface- blood out of silk pajamas, and mildew out of tile grout.  His employers often phoned him to find out what was being served at upcoming dinner parties, and how to eat it, in terms of etiquette.  The employers also had a daily planner book, filled out to the minute, for several weeks out.  They were demanding, but Tender was good at his job and didn’t ask questions.

Eventually, at the age of 33, Tender heard of the Creedish ‘Deliverance’.  All members of his family and church had committed suicide.  The church was reported as child abusers and the entire slave labor program was uncovered.  Tender was assigned a case-worker as part of the ‘Survivor Retention Program’ and they had weekly meetings to talk and make sure he was OK.  As other members heard of the Deliverance, the faithful pupils as they were, the took their lives to be delivered into heaven.  Tender knew, but was not very interested in the plan, and kept living his normal life.  Soon, he met Fertility Hollis, and began a strange relationship with the clairvoyant girl. Fertility had dreams about upcoming disasters- explosions, plane crashes, fires, a chandelier falling. She took Tender to a department store to witness a fire.  They watched as the racks of clothing around them burned in a fury until the sprinkler system kicked in and kept them safe, she knew they would be safe of course.   A freak accident with his case-worker breathing deadly fumes led the media into finding out that Tender was the sole-survivor of the Creedish cult, or so they thought.

An agent took in Tender and transformed him into a media frenzy.  There were books written, TV appearances, and even a dashboard doll made in the likeness of Tender Branson.  The public image that was Tender was a overly religion icon, his books were best sellers.  The agent had him taking steroids, tanning, got his teeth capped, botox injections, the works.  The were always traveling to stadiums speaking to the followers.  Much like the cleaning job, his schedule was forced upon him task by task to the minute.

I’ll leave the summary here, as Tender runs into trouble and finds out he’s not the actual sole survivor of the Creedish.  Everything kind of blows up in his face, and as mentioned before, he ends up hijacking an airplane to get his story told, once and for all.

The book was very hard to put down, a quick read.  The fun factoids and details that appeared in the Fight Club were in full-effect here as well.

How to get bloodstains out of a fur coat: cornmeal and brushing the wrong way.

How to get blood stains off of piano keys: polish them with talcum powder.

How to hide bullet holes in a living room wall: toothpaste.

These were a fun part of the book.  I also enjoyed the entire count-down theme.  The chapters were in reverse order, the pages counted down to end at page one.  As Tender told his story, you are reading a countdown to the present part of the hijacking.  This is a creative novel, and even though some of the characterization follows Palahnuik’s Fight Club, it is still an original read that puts you on the edge of your seat to find out how Tender’s fate brought him to his lonely flight.

Rating: *********(9/10)

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A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson

Ah, the great story-teller, Bill Bryson.  I have heard about many of his books but in my 32nd year on this planet, I have finally picked one up and turned the pages.

Moving  back to the states in the 1990s, Bryson settled in New Hampshire, just a few hundred yards from the great Appalachian Trail.  He heard stories of crazy hikers walking the trail in entirety, from Georgia to Maine, nearly 2200 miles, and decided to go on the big walk himself.  As he researched and bought camping equipment, he also sent out several letters inviting friends to accompany him on the trail.  Stephen Katz was an old friend who showed interest, they had, in fact, traveled Europe together several years before.  Bryson was a little leery because they had grown sick and tired of each others company after a few weeks together in Europe, but welcomed the friend to join if he thought he was up for it.  Katz showed up quite overweight and not looking like the image he portrayed to Bryson.  Katz was a former drug addict and alcoholic, who was currently walking everywhere anyway, because his license was revoked due to legal issues. Katz also had a medical condition in which he had to eat sugar frequently due to a bad batch of drugs in his not so distant past.  Not exactly the ideal partner for a 2000 mile walk in the wilderness.  Though his partner might have some difficulties, Bryson’s biggest fear became the realization that the wilderness held a multitude of deadly animals rarely seen from the public standpoint of cities and highways, more specifically, bears.  Bryson relayed several stories of bear attacks in the history of the trail, eventually coming to the conclusion that there was no sure way to avoid them, and no clear reason why they attack or why they may simply walk away from the fearful hikers. Other than bears, there were also venomous spiders, deadly snakes, mountain lions, and bobcats, though Bryson never confirmed a single sighting of any of these on his summer on the trail.

Bryson and Katz began in Georgia in March of 1996, hiking Northward.  It was hell starting the trail. Katz became frustrated and threw several packs of food and necessities to lighten his load, not even considering the situation he was in.  They had weighty packs and several days of snow and below freezing weather those first few weeks.  One evening, they opened their tents to find snow waist-deep.  They slowly hiked through and by the end of the day the sun had melted most of it.  The most joyful parts of the book were when they happened to be close enough to a town to restock supplies, stay in a hotel, and have a restaurant dinner- always a welcomed treat in comparison with the daily ration of noodles they came to tolerate. After several weeks, they reached Virginia where they took a break from the trail.  Katz went back to Iowa to work construction for a few weeks while Bryson returned home.  During those weeks, Bryson took day hikes to stay in shape and hiked several mountains near New Hampshire.  One hike in New Hampshire’s White Mountains quickly found him on the edge of hypothermia.  He had started on a sunny July morning and the sudden mountainous weather had changed for a freezing fog half way to a lodge he was headed to.  Being that it was sunny most days, he had only packed a sweater for warmth and neglected to pack waterproofs.  The cold and moisture was penetrating.  For over an hour he bared the elements and made it to the lodge just in time to warm up and drink some hot coffee while the the weather turned back to the sunny day that it had started with.

Katz returned in August and the pair went off to hike the end of the trail in Maine.  Though it is the last 200 miles, the trail in Maine is torturous.  Thick woods and large elevation changes make the trail a real challenge.  They planned on going through the 100 Mile Woods, then to the summit of Katahdin to finish the summer.  After hiking a few days, they made it several miles into the 100 Mile Woods when Bryson left Katz to go ahead on the trail and filter and refill the water bottles.  When Bryson went to find Katz he was nowhere to be found.  Bryson walked several miles up and down the trail looking for any sign of Katz. Fearing the worst, he even looked over the cliffs to check if his friend had taken a fall to his death.  No sign of Katz.  Bryson set up camp and decided to continue on the trail in the morning in the case that Katz might have missed the rendezvous and was ahead of him.  Sure enough he was waiting several miles ahead and they agreed that it was time to head home.

As a part-time traveler, this book was a nice read.  I’m not sure I would ever be up for conquering the trail, but it was an entertaining read.  I enjoyed the stories Bryson supplemented about the history of dangerous tales of the trail.  It would really make a gung-ho, aspiring hiker think twice about wandering off into the woods for a few weeks. The details of the scenery, the towns, and people Bryson encountered made the book a complete modern adventure, and I have to say I look forward to more from Bryson when the time comes.

Rating: *********9/10