Tag Archives: Autobiography

Review: Mud, Sweat and Tears

Rating: ★★★

Author: Bear Grylls is an adventurer and motivational speaker who is driven by his Christian faith. He is best known as a reality television personality (Man vs. Wild, Running Wild); as an adventurer, he is best known for climbing Mount Everest, crossing the Atlantic in a raft, and narrowly surviving a parachute failure while skydiving; but he has a number of ventures under way including numerous books, a growing brand, and survival skills training camps.

Overview:

Grylls came from an aristocratic family. Amazingly, both positive thinking and disaster run in his family: His great-grandfather died in a shipwreck, and, further back, he’s related to Samuel Smiles, who invented the genre of “self-help” with his 1859 book by that title. (F. W. Boreham was a huge fan of Smiles and his motivational biographies.)

Known for his faith and adventures, Bear Grylls is far from a modern Puritan. He is a Special Forces veteran with a lot of close calls under his belt, not all of which are even in this book. This biography is jammed with crazy and amusing stories including prep school hijinx, urban climbing, bullying, and skinny dipping.

In this book, highlights include a very free boyhood, passing selection for the British Special Forces—essentially an endless mountain marathon with full combat gear—and a treacherous Everest bid as he recovered from a skydiving accident which had broken several vertebrae. He also describes the career transition that enabled him to market himself as an “adventurer” and transform that title into a paying job.

Meat:

Grylls is not an effusive or florid writer, and that makes this book a quick read. The book’s main merit is probably just the fascination of the stories he tells. The way he describes British Special Forces, by the way, makes it sound more wearisome than climbing Everest (though certainly not more dangerous).

Though Grylls is not a particularly profound thinker, he makes up for this by expressing himself in historical quotes and simple inspirational aphorisms:

Do the impossible. Climb the impassable—eat the inedible. (p. 393)

Bones:

I disagree with Grylls on several finer points, but his lust for life is definitely inspiring. Overall, our differences almost entirely stem from the fact that he is English, and I am not. Europeans are almost never in your face about their faith, and so Grylls doesn’t talk about his faith nearly as much as I expected in this book.

I think the audience of this book was meant to be very broad and popular; Grylls is not just interested in being pegged as a fixture on the Christian bookstore shelves, and I suppose I can respect that.

Quotes:

Fear forces you to look tough on the outside but makes you weak on the inside. (p. 64)

My dad had always told me that if I could be the most enthusiastic person I knew then I would do well. (p. 89)

Faith in Christ has been the great empowering presence in my life, helping me walk strong when so often I feel so weak. (p. 98)

Dreams, though, are cheap, and the real task comes when you start putting in place the steps needed to make those dreams a reality. (p. 117)

Mental strength was something that had to accompany the physical. And the physical is always driven by the mental. (p. 160)

On public speaking:

Be sincere, be brief, be seated. (loc. 4692, attr. to John Mills)

On finding a sponsor for his Everest bid:

I got lucky. But then again, it took me many hundreds of rejections to manage to find that luck. (p. 269)

On mountains and mountain climbing:

Sir Edmund Hilary, Everest’s first conqueror, once said that the mountains gave him strength. (p. 339)

Statistically, the vast majority of accidents happen on the descent. It is because nothing matters any longer, the goal is attained . . . (p. 347)

There are man for whom the unattainable has a special attraction. (qtd. from Everest: A Mountaineering History)


Note: This review was written November 10, 2015, but published online in 2020.

Review: Now and Then (Buechner)

Rating:

Full Title: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation

Who: Frederick Buechner, preacher and writer of novels and spiritual nonfiction.

Overview: Buechner divides this book into three places he has lived: New York, Exeter (New Hampshire, not England), and Vermont. He gives us a tour through several unspectacular events and places in his life, yet draws the truth out of them like an unlooked-for flavor in a meal prepared by a master chef. The book is along the line of a spiritual autobiography, not giving many details about his life and work, but piecing together the truths he learned along the way.

This book carries forward particularly an idea present in Buechner’s other books, about seeing God as the main character in your own autobiography. “Listen to your life,” he says more than once.

Meat: Buechner is consummately skilled as a writer. He speaks truth more unobtrusively than almost any other author I have read, and in that I would see him as a predecessor to Donald Miller. (Or, others would say Donald Miller is a successor of his.)

The main theme, repeated at the beginning and the end, is stated thus:

Here and there, even in our world, and now and then, even in ourselves, we catch glimpses of a New Creation, which, fleeting as those glimpses are apt to be, give us hope both for this life and for whatever life may await us later on.

He also shows a great appreciation for “the dark night of the soul”—an idea I’ve written about elsewhere—and shows that preachers and theologians (such as those he studied under) are not exempt from being mystics to a certain extent. Intellect does not guard us from doubt.

Bones: Where I was less impressed is his theology proper. I sense a deep sympathy in some paragraphs where he mentions times of doubt or depression, but at other times it simply felt like he was hedging with his language. Occasionally I felt that Buechner was betraying more skepticism than is becoming of a preacher, and perhaps that is why he is so popular in theologically mainstream-to-liberal circles.

As just another instance, when he cites examples from Buddhism, they are, for the most part interesting, but I can’t help but feel that it is a ploy to keep less religious readers engaged, especially when he backpedals and says that the Christian view is more encompassing.

Of course, Buechner himself mentions this dillemma of audience, which tries to straddle the line between those who are “in” and “out” of this club we call religion. He is neither the first nor the last to experience this dillemma, but all in all I feel that, whoever his reader is, Buechner truly has something to say, and says it powerfully—not so much like a trumpet, but more like rising string overture, a gentle reminder that your soundtrack is already playing, the camera is running. This is your life. What is God saying through it?

Quotes:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

“I try not to stack the deck unduly but always let doubt and darkness have their say along with faith and hope, not just because it is good apologetics – woe to him who tries to make it look simple and easy – but because to do it any other way would be to be less true to the elements of doubt and darkness that exist in myself no less than in others.”