Book review: ‘Wild’ by Cheryl Strayed

WildI read Wild when I was feeling wild myself.

Isn’t it funny how that often works? A book seems to find you at precisely the point when its pages would bear something you really need to know.

For me, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of embarking solo to hike the Pacific Crest Trail so topical and enthralling . . . though I listened to the audio nonstop the weekend I moved to Spencer’s, feeling a little bit lost and anxious and uncertain. With Strayed’s soul sprawled bare on the pages, I felt like a warrior alongside her — a compatriot, a comrade. We were in this together.

Whatever “this” happened to be — for her, for me.

For Strayed, it was battling through grief after her mother is quickly taken from cancer. At 24, she’s very recently divorced, a recovering addict — a broken young woman wondering what and where her next move will take her.

On a whim waiting in line one day, she picks up a book that will change her life: The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California. Orphaned and bereft, the idea of leaving it all to hike is pretty appealing. She sells most of her possessions, buys a pack she will affectionately dub “Monster,” creates care packages to be delivered to herself at various post offices along the PCT and sets off.

The adventure is just beginning.

Before I randomly picked up Wild at the library after reading a post from Kim, I had no experience with Strayed. She’s the voice behind Dear Sugar, a popular online advice column — and reading through her backlog is pretty stunning. Many of her essays were recently compiled into Tiny Beautiful Things (and I plan to look for that soon).

PCTSo I came into Strayed’s memoir clean. No preconceived notions; no real plans or expectations. And while Wild could be a bit meandering at points, unruly and fierce but occasionally tedious, I really fell in love with the story. I fell in love with Cheryl, so crazed and raw and unsteady on her feet.

Because who hasn’t felt that way? Who hasn’t dreamed of chucking it all, selling off our crap and taking to the woods? I certainly have — and trust that I’m no nature girl. But the idea of living on the land, breathing the fresh air, wandering free with no plans or expectations save finding a clean water source (an important mission) . . . well, it really appeals to me on some deep, visceral level. The same way that traveling the world to “find ourselves” has become so synonymous with Eat, Pray, Love, you know?

The PCT itself is a central character in Strayed’s story, threatening to freeze her to death in one moment while barbequing her alive in the next. All told, Strayed hikes from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State, stopping along the way to chat with new friends, pine for Snapple, bum a meal from a kindly shopkeeper or bandage her damaged feet. Before she sets off to California, she has no real hiking experience; she’s an everyday person, a “regular” woman, and Cheryl wants only to stay one step ahead of her demons.

More than anything, Wild is a walk through grief. Her mother’s death changes everything. Nothing feels certain; everything is a gamble, a mess. And though Strayed takes this journey in 1995, the pain and confusion still feel very much on the surface. Because of this, many passages were very hard to get through.

There were places Cheryl walked that I couldn’t follow. The brutal final days at her mother’s side; the sickness of a beloved horse. A cold and brutal winter that finds her having to make an awful, terrifying decision. Strayed’s prose is so vivid, so gut-wrenching, that my stomach churned and my hands trembled until I had to move forward. I simply couldn’t take it.

It’s hard to capture in words the way this book made me feel. Perhaps because I was listening to it on audio, I was so lost in the woods with Cheryl that I felt bereft when our journey together was over. Though she doesn’t have that one major epiphany we expect from a memoir like this (and perhaps that’s a good thing), her transformation en route to Portland is sincere. Physically, she’s lean and muscular and bitten and bruised; emotionally, she’s fragile but stronger every day. Though nothing truly terrible befalls her, she has a few frightening experiences but lives to tell the tale.

And lives well. Strayed is now a New York Times bestselling author, a wife, a mother. A film adaptation of Wild starring Reese Witherspoon is in the works. She’s come a long way from the frightened but determined twenty-something taking on the PCT . . . and I feel fortunate to have found her.

Highly recommended to fans of memoirs, transformational or inspirational stories, or anyone looking for a riveting non-fic read. Wild is a truly memorable experience.

4.5 out of 5!

Pub: March 20, 2012 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

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Book review: ‘Very Recent History’ by Choire Sicha

Very Recent HistoryThis is a strange story told in an unusual way.

Good strange? Bad strange? Or just strange strange?

Well. I’m still not sure.

So Choire Sicha has penned Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City, which is a true-life exploration of the life of John and his group of friends. Described as “an idiosyncratic and elegant narrative” by the publisher, Sicha’s writing style is so unique — like we’re all animals behind glass, analyzed and explained and broken into pieces — that it took me a while to engage with the text. Everything just felt so clinical.

I’m struggling to articulate what this book is about — or even centering on — without assistance, so let’s pop in the publisher’s summary, shall we?

“What will the future make of us?

After the Wall Street crash of 2008, the richest man in town is the mayor. Billionaires shed apartments like last season’s fashions, even as the country’s economy turns inside out. The young and careless go on as they always have, getting laid and getting laid off, falling in and out of love, and trying to navigate the strange world they traffic in: the Internet, complex financial markets, credit cards, pop stars, micro-plane cheese graters, and sex apps.

A true-life fable of money, sex, and politics, Choire Sicha’s Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City turns our focus to a year in the life of a great city.”

Very Recent History assumes we are aliens (or maybe humans?) from a century or so in the future (or longer?), where we’re examining young men in an American economy grappling with the early tentacles of a recession. As we’re not too far removed from economic collapse at the present moment, it was interesting to read a narrative detailing something you just lived through. Though the titular City is never named, it’s clearly New York — and we don’t have to live in New York to feel where Sicha is coming from. His writing is descriptive and very readable.

But before we get any deeper, you have to understand what a unique reading experience this. A Goodreads reviewer described its style as “anthropological,” and it’s such a precise and perfect description that I have to borrow it myself. Sicha lets readers into the world of John and New York as a whole without judgment, merely presenting the facts. The best way to understand what I mean is, I hope, through Sicha’s own snippets:

“The idea of a distinct unit of money was, at that time, a little more than 5,000 years old, as near as could be told. … So for a long time, money had been an object that promised a value, such as a piece of paper that said, with words, that it conveyed a certain amount. … Where there was money, some would hoard it. Some would never get much of it. Some who had much of it would use it to get more. This was a sensible reaction to there being money.”

“John worked, as did many people in the City, in the office of a corporate entity that was privately owned. Some companies were owned ‘publicly.’ This meant that, to one extent or another, individuals or companies could buy ‘shares’ — little pieces — in the company and therefore become its owner, or one of its many owners. … Some of these companies were profitable — earning more than they spent. This one was not.”

“Sex was a very unsatisfying practice at this time, considered animal and messy, and also dangerous. It had been dangerous for a long time, but now most nonlethal diseases were treatable, and also women could largely control whether they became pregnant. Pregnancy was the most lethal byproduct of sex.”

“All told, at the end of this year, John’s debt added up to about 15,000 dollars for college, 40,000 for professional school and about 14,000 in credit card debt during school, almost 70,000 dollars all in, a small percentage of which was paid down. Who could even begin to start worrying about a thing like this? That was what desk drawers were for.”

Despite the fact that I regularly enjoy literary fiction, I found Very Recent History to be a slog — for me. It’s funny because, as a reader, I can clearly see why others would enjoy this story . . . and can’t deny its power and relevance. It felt fresh and current, but I just knew rather quickly that it wouldn’t be a winner for me. I want to be savvy and high-brow enough to enjoy such a book, but I just felt so removed. Emotionally, physically. I never bonded with John, never took to his cobbled-together group of friends and coworkers. I just . . . didn’t quite get it.

I commend Sicha for coming up with an innovative work and appreciated his grander message: examining our present lives and culture long enough to wonder, “Is this worth it?” The Mayor plays a significant role in the work, too, working to make us question the role of government, power and leadership, but it was all just . . . over my head. While I didn’t feel cool enough for Very Recent History, I hope it lands with the right reader. Maybe it’s you.

3 out of 5!

Pub: August 6, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

The books I hadn’t read

Book I have not readOne of the best parts of blogging — and blogging books, especially — has been expanding my reading horizons to include all sorts of stories I wouldn’t “normally” read. Once subsisting on a diet of only chick lit and young adult, friends’ reviews of all sorts of books have really pushed me to grow as a reader . . . and a person.

As Kim enjoys a well-deserved vacation, I’m guest-posting today over at Sophisticated Dorkiness on female-driven memoirs that make really great stories. Once upon a time, wrinkled-nose Meg was afraid to branch into non-fiction because so much of what I’d been exposed to could be easily classified as mind-numbingly boring. Giving memoirs a chance as an adult has changed all that.

Pop over and check out the post — and happy Monday!

Book review: ‘The International Bank of Bob’ by Bob Harris

Bank of BobBob Harris knows exactly where he had his epiphany. On a writing assignment in Dubai, a location known for both its extreme wealth and rampant poverty, he was sipping a shockingly expensive cup of coffee while trying to forget a group of migrant workers sleeping in the streets before work the next day.

As a freelance journalist and travel writer, Harris traversed the globe covering luxurious accommodations — and though he wasn’t paid handsomely (nowhere near enough to stay in those digs on his own dime), he was able to build his savings while writing and enjoying the sights. Considering himself fortunate, Harris notices how workers watch him in the street: his American clothes, his fancy transportation. The people constructing the resorts he’s frequenting are often thousands of miles from home — and their families. They work for years at a time in a form of indentured servitude so Harris can sip a cup of coffee expensive enough to completely buy them out of poverty back home.

He has to do something.

Joining Kiva, an international lending site linking funds to borrowers around the world, Harris pours his savings into loans distributed to impoverished world citizens who simply need a helping hand. Kiva’s platform links partner institutions to individuals with funds who want to help. You’re not donating money; you’re lending it. And, the great majority of the time, you get it back . . . and can flip it again.

In The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time, Harris takes his lending one step further: after providing the funds for men and women in Africa, Morocco or Cambodia to buy supplies for shops, purchase cows, help with schooling and more, Harris takes a trip of his own: to meet borrowers face-to-face. Via translators and helpers, Kiva employees and locals, Harris finds himself in all manner of locales to meet the people who benefit every day from the faith of strangers. And if he’s helped change their lives in any small way, well . . . they’re changing his, too.

What struck me immediately in this thorough, honest and fascinating travel and humanitarian memoir is Harris’ steadfast belief that one person really can make a difference. Never does he judge or condescend; he is thoughtful, kindhearted. Bob is humble. His painstakingly cautious approach to telling others’ stories is further proof of his sincerity, and I couldn’t help but admire him — as a person and a writer — for the lengths to which he strove to make the story about others, not himself.

No small feat for a personal memoir.

The armchair travel opportunities are plentiful here, absolutely, and Harris paints many a beautiful picture as he travels seeking to better understand microcredit. But Kiva and microlending — and those they benefit — are the stars of this story. Microfinance was made famous by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who penned Banker to the Poor. For someone who walked into Harris’ story without any knowledge of microfinance, I emerged with a much clearer understanding of the process.

I really appreciated the incredibly balanced perspective Harris offers in . . . well, every aspect of the book. While microlending has been life-changing for some and most local partner agencies are working toward the common good, Harris doesn’t paint over the messier parts: like the organizations shut down for veritable loan sharking. He talks of the good and the bad, the joys and the trade-offs. And though he is a champion for Kiva, he doesn’t work for Kiva; he’s free to discuss what he wants. His story never reads like a rampant endorsement for the site, though he never puts it down.

This is a story of money . . . of who has it, and who doesn’t. Harris often discusses “the birth lottery” — how the circumstances of our lives are so often dictated by forces out of our control. God, destiny, science, karma . . . however you view it, somehow we got here. What are the odds I would be born a white American woman in a middle-class family, for example? (Pretty low.) Who’s to say I am more “worthy” of a warm dinner and clean bed than a little boy in India, or a young mother in Vietnam? (No one.)

But Harris doesn’t dwell on the sad or the unpleasant. He mixes his own personal history — and his father’s hardscrabble Appalachian roots — with the stories of those he encounters, which lends a sweetness and authenticity to his adventures. He isn’t a poverty voyeur, zipping around the world to gawk at others’ troubles and flip them into a fat book advance. Bob is in the story, invested in the story — and he’s still written a moving book that never screams Look at me! It never feels boastful, which is pretty amazing if you consider he and members of his Kiva group have made more than 121,000 loans totaling upwards of $3.4 million through Kiva.

If ever there was something to brag about, well — that would be it.

But Bob doesn’t. Bob is funny. Bob is awesome. I finished this book feeling buoyant and hopeful and happy. It gave me a warm, humanity-doesn’t-completely-suck feeling often missing from my everyday life. With the evening news so often full of pain and chaos, The International Bank of Bob reminded me that through laptops in random laps across the globe, so many people are working toward a greater tomorrow by making a small and generous move today.

We can work toward a greater tomorrow. Together. In small ways, in big ones
. . . together.

What a beautiful thing.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0802777511 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Yes, Chef’ by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, ChefEthiopian-born, Swedish-raised American chef Marcus Samuelsson had anything but a conventional upbringing.

After his African mother dies of tuberculosis following the 75-mile walk to a hospital that saved the life of he and his sister, 3-year-old Marcus is adopted by a loving white couple from Sweden. Raised with a grandmother who instills a passion for food and fascinated by the tastes and flavors of his dual heritage, Marcus turns his sights on cooking. His ambitions propel him from kitchens in Göteborg to fine restaurants in Switzerland and France, eventually landing him in New York City.

Now a successful chef and a “Top Chef Masters” winner, Samuelsson documents it all in Yes, Chef: his honest account of what it took to land him where he is today . . . and a loving ode to his varied roots — and phenomenal food.

This memoir landed in my hands on a rainy day at the library. I was wandering the audio shelves in search of something different — and I’ve been on a serious foodie fiction and food-related memoirs kick lately. Though I’d never heard of Marcus, something about his story jumped out at me. I devoured his memoir — pun intended — and am already fantasizing about how to get up to Red Rooster to taste his dishes in person.

Where to even begin with this story? Marcus’ rise to the top was filled with potholes and setbacks, disappointments and grief — but he persisted. While it’s hard not to judge some of his steely-eyed decisions harshly, thinking him cold-hearted, I believe Marcus was just a young man with ambitions that couldn’t be dampened. His laser-sharp focus on pursuing cooking came above everything else — and I couldn’t help but admire that.

Despite some of his more surprising decisions, Marcus comes across as raw and humble in his retellings of the moments that shaped his life. His descriptions of family — specifically, what “makes” a family — were touching and heartbreaking, and I cried my way through one of the early chapters. I was fascinated by his African and Swedish roots, and revelled in his descriptions of life in Göteborg (or “G-berg,” as the kids affectionately call it). The narrative detoured a bit as Marcus arrived in New York, but I loved feeling his sense of camaraderie with the wide-ranging people that inhabit the city.

Whether or not you’re familiar with Samuelsson, he has a fascinating story to tell — and I loved that Yes, Chef also pays homage to the many people who helped him continue climbing a ladder that might have otherwise become sawed-off. Also touching on issues of class, race and culture, this memoir was a thought-provoking read that held me captive from beginning to end.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library

About the audio: Samuelsson narrates his own story — and honestly, despite having to get used to his accent, I can’t imagine it any other way. His unique vocal patterns and careful word choices would have been lost on another narrator. As it stands, listening to Yes, Chef was an interesting and moving experience.

Book review: ‘The Tao of Martha’ by Jen Lancaster

There’s a trend in non-fiction these days: the stunt memoir. Or, as I like to call it, the gimmicky memoir.

You’ve heard of some, I’m sure. Maybe you’ve read a few. But for the unfamiliar, the stunt memoir’s premise is that, for a certain amount of time, the author will embark on a personal challenge and then write about it — often in the spirit of self-discovery or improvement. Maybe it’s not looking at herself in a mirror for a year. Or trying to follow the Bible to the letter. Or following the advice of a women’s how-to guide from the 1960s.

And you know what? Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s enlightening and interesting and compelling. And sometimes . . . it’s a stretch. It feels contrived. There’s nothing interesting or fresh. Friends, it’s with great sadness that I place the awesome Jen Lancaster’s latest work, The Tao of Martha, into the latter category.

This pains me — it really does. But this book didn’t work for me. I waited for it to get funny or to illuminate something or to shimmer with the wit that has made Lancaster a bookish superstar, but it just never got there. And with only 50 pages to go, I resorted to skimming. Skimming. Skimming in a Lancaster book. That’s just . . . sacrilege.

The Tao of MarthaYou’ve probably gleaned Lancaster’s “stunt” from the title but, if not, here goes:

“Jen’s still a little rough around the edges. Suffice it to say, she’s no Martha Stewart. And that is exactly why Jen is going to Martha up and live her life according to the advice of America’s overachieving older sister — the woman who turns lemons into lavender-infused lemonade.

By immersing herself in Martha’s media empire, Jen will embark on a yearlong quest to take herself, her house, her husband (and maybe even her pets) to the next level — from closet organization to craft making, from party planning to kitchen prep.

Maybe Jen can go four days without giving herself food poisoning if she follows Martha’s dictates on proper storage. Maybe she can grow closer to her girlfriends by taking up their boring-ass hobbies like knitting and sewing. Maybe she can finally rid her workout clothes of meatball stains by using Martha’s laundry tips. Maybe she can create a more meaningful anniversary celebration than just getting drunk in the pool with her husband . . . again. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll discover that the key to happiness does, in fact, lie in Martha’s perfectly arranged cupboards and artfully displayed charcuterie platters.

Or maybe not.” (Goodreads)

So, okay: this book wasn’t bad. Despite my tone, a Jen Lancaster memoir is still often better than a non-Jen Lancaster memoir. Her battles in her garden, attempts to sculpt a magnificent trick-or-treating experience for neighborhood kids, poignant stories of losing a beloved dog? All well-told, and worth the price of admission. (And my three-star rating.) There were moments when The Tao of Martha offered up the Jen we all know and love and I thought, Yes! Here she is. Let’s do this.

But then . . . things just got boring.

The story felt forced. I don’t know how else to explain it. Jen is obviously not Martha Stewart and, haha, none of us are because she’s Martha and she’s perfect and blah blah, we’ve been here before. Haven’t we? It felt like a joke that had gone stale: everyone knows Martha is the shining beacon of all mere mortals can never accomplish. No one can be as lovely, perfect, nonplussed. So I guess I was waiting for . . . something more? Jen does experience some growth and actually finds she enjoys some of hobbies she adopts, but it wasn’t enough.

I just never felt invested in her journey, plain and simple.

If you’re new to Jen Lancaster, you can’t go wrong with Bitter Is the New Black. It remains one of the funniest and most heartfelt stories I’ve read, and follow-ups like Bright Lights, Big Ass and Such A Pretty Fat were also stellar. So while The Tao of Martha didn’t wow me, I can unabashedly recommend her works to anyone new to her humor. And I’ll still be eager to get my paws on whatever she whips up next.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Paris In Love’ by Eloisa James

Paris In LoveI love daydreaming about Paris.

It’s one of my favorite pastimes, in fact. The people, the architecture, the desserts . . . all tantalizing. Intoxicating. Absorbing. If I had the funds and vacation time (both quite elusive these days), I’d be on a transcontinental flight faster than you can say macaron.

But alas. Until I can sip wine beneath the Eiffel Tower in person, I’ll have to settle for delightful stories like Eloisa James’ memoir Paris In Love.

After surviving cancer shortly after her mother recently died of the disease, Eloisa James convinces her husband, son and daughter to move abroad for a year to discover what the Parisian life is all about. With Anna and Luca settled in a new school and Alessandro learning the local ropes, Eloisa settles in to absorb the city and work on several books.

A popular and prolific romance novelist, Eloisa makes no bones about her French journey: though she may wish she and her family came away from the experience with amazing “life lessons” or a greater appreciation for family or the passage of time, what their year abroad really taught her was to try and be in the moment. Life is just life. Told as a series of vignettes, Paris In Love is a compilation of her skillfully-crafted Facebook and Twitter updates from their time in the City of Light — occasionally expanded into short essays about subjects as diverse as Anna’s burgeoning friendships, French food, a nearby dance school and more.

It was a different reading experience — and a quick one. James’ thoughts are shared in paragraph-long snippets that, while chronological, don’t necessarily connect from one page to the next. The results felt like reading someone’s travel journal: little glimpses of day-to-day life for a stranger in a strange land, trying to blend with the locals while getting some work done. The most charming passages focused on Luca and Anna, Alessandro and Eloisa’s children, and I looked forward to hearing about their ex-pat adventures in school.

Francophiles and armchair travelers will find Paris In Love to be a fast, delightful read — and James’ fans will welcome an opportunity to know the author better through her memoir. If Paris lacks sparkle for you, you’ll likely find the descriptions hum-drum — but if you’re looking to escape to the other side of the Atlantic for a few hours, James’ invitation to come along is a fun one.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0812981901 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review