Review: Wild

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Cheryl Strayed. Vintage Books, $16, 315 p. ISBN 9780307476074

If ever a motivator was needed to step outside of the “everyday grind,” or inspire a need for rejuvenation and embark on a new adventure, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, meets every requirement.

Life sometimes brings moments of feeling lost, disorientated, or adrift in a static sea, after an unfortunate or emotional event. An experience like this is normally not voluntary, and is generally difficult to emerge from. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is the true story of how a 26-year-old woman found healing and reawakening after conquering an 1,100-mile hike on her own.

It was not until after Strayed divorced her husband, lost her mother to lung cancer, and experienced an addiction to heroin that she decided to attempt to hike a 1,100-mile portion of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), beginning in the Mojave Desert and ending at the Bridge of the Gods in Washington. Important to note is the fact that after her divorce, Strayed, whose given name is Cheryl Nyland, legally changed her name to Cheryl Strayed in order to signify the times in her life that she’d really lost her way.

Strayed noticed a PCT guidebook at outdoor recreation outlet REI, and later found herself returning to the store to purchase the guidebook. Having never been backpacking before, she was driven to make the hike, not entirely sure how, or even why. Strayed soon after quits her job as a waitress, sells the majority of her possessions, and purchases an amateur’s set of supplies for what would become a three-month journey.

Within her memoir, Strayed tells two stories alongside each other: one of her journey along the PCT, and the other of her personal background, or what brought her to the trail. Both of Strayed’s stories show a struggle, and in the end, conquest over one actually brings Strayed to victory over both.

Strayed makes sure to communicate to the reader how much of a burden her backpack was on several, quite comical, occasions. Strayed dubs her backpack “Monster”, which she notes was 70 pounds at its heaviest, and 50 pounds at its lightest.  Either stuffed into or strapped onto Monster are fleece pants, a thermal shirt, a hooded anorak, two pair of wool socks, two pair of underwear, gloves, a sun hat, a fleece hat, rain pants, food for fourteen days, a sleeping bag, a camping chair, a headlamp, bungee cords, a water purifier, a stove, a canister of gas, a lighter, two cooking pots, utensils, a pair of sandals, a towel, a thermometer, a tarp, a mug, a snakebite kit, a Swiss Army knife, binoculars, a compass, a book telling how to use the compass, a first-aid kit, toiletries, a menstrual sponge, a lantern, water bottles, iodine pills, a saw, two pens, three books: The Pacific Crest Trail, Vol.1: California; As I Lay Dying; and Dream of a Common Language, and a sketchbook. Needless to say, Monster is our literal representation of Strayed’s struggle while on the PCT.

Perhaps more personal about Strayed’s struggle on the PCT is Strayed’s struggle to come to terms with her mother’s sudden death. Strayed writes that her mother passes away seven weeks to the day after being diagnosed with cancer, and how Strayed had carried a particular anger since losing her mother so soon. Being motherless causes Strayed to “instantly grow up and forgive her [mother’s] every motherly fault,” instead of gradually growing apart from her mother while concurrently realizing that her mother had raised Strayed to the best of her ability. Before her death, Strayed’s mother repeats to Strayed, “I’m with you always,” like she would when Strayed was a young girl.

Strayed captures perfectly the symbiotic relationship between carrying Monster on her back and anger in her heart in this quote: “I was amazed that what I needed to survive could be carried on my back. And, most surprising of all, that I could carry it,” (pg. 92). Ultimately, it is Strayed’s realization while closing in on her journey’s goal in Washington that her mother’s death didn’t have to be a burden of grief, but could be a burden of love, that releases her from her strayed struggle within.

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Review: With Malice

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Eileen Cook. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18, 320p. ISBN 9780544805095.

In her latest thriller, With Malice, author Eileen Cook places two girls in Italy and brings only one of them back – with broken bones and memory loss.

Cook opens her novel presenting Ivy League-bound Jill Charron waking up in a hospital, having just been emergency airlifted from Italy and not knowing that she was ever in Europe. After being told about the car accident that left her with a broken leg and aphasia, Jill struggles to put together the pieces of her missing memories. Jill tries to use a hospital phone to call her best friend, Simone, convinced that Simone will be able to fill in the gaps of her memories, but Jill is rudely thwarted by Simone’s parents. Jill later learns that although she and Simone had gone on the school-sponsored trip to Italy together, excited to immerse themselves in all the art and history that Italy has to offer, Simone didn’t return from Italy – and Jill is the leading suspect in Simon’s apparent murder.

Already wrestling with her lack of memory, Jill is burdened with pressure from her family’s lawyer, who is trying to control what the media publishes; from the Italian police, who want to extradite Jill to face charges of manslaughter; and even from her parents, who have doubts of Jill’s innocence. All the while, Jill strives to remember any piece of her time in Italy, her supposed “lover”, and what could’ve caused such an argument to lead Jill to possibly murder Simone.

Cook expertly keeps the reader from deciding between Jill’s innocence or guilt by venturing out of the normal form of writing a novel. Cook builds the story partially through published snippets of blog posts, Facebook posts and comments, text message threads, and interview transcriptions. Cook alternates her chapters from publishing witness accounts and social opinion of the Jill’s innocence or guilt, to progressing Jill’s story as she spending her weeks in therapy and residential care, anticipating the day when she’ll have to go to court. As soon as one piece of evidence is revealed that seemingly proves Jill’s guilt, another eyewitness account is presented that convinces of Jill’s innocence. This method of writing draws the reader into the story, and largely contributes to the thrill of reading on to find the truth.

Cook develops Jill’s character around internal struggles, self-discovery, personal growth, and the questioning of faithfulness, all of which a teenager battles during transition between high school and the “real world.” One common coming-of-age reality that Jill comes to face is the reality that she’s going to have to move forward with college and the rest of her life without her best friend, Simone, whom she’s known since fourth grade. Cook challenges this concept with Jill’s roommate in the recovery home, who teaches Jill to be open to trusting people regardless of how long or how well she knows them.

With Malice is a suspenseful read that explores the values of honesty, loyalty, and friendship, as well as the argument that a person’s real character is only discovered by persevering through difficult times.

Review: Before The Fall

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Noah Hawley. Grand Central Publishing, $26, 400p. ISBN 9781478987581
Into a world that has grown focused on the appearance of self and the embellishment of truth, Noah Hawley installs a cast of characters representative of both connivance and compassion. Our society today knows to accept news reports at arm’s length, unless the sources are verified and the facts are proven to be correct. Hawley’s latest thriller, Before the Fall, epitomizes this conflict between reported fact and fiction, drawing the reader in closer and closer until the truth is finally revealed in quite literally the very last pages of the novel.

Thirty miles off of the coast of New York, a private plane falls out of the sky taking the lives of nine very wealthy passengers with it. The only survivors are a struggling painter, and the four-year-old son of a news magnate.

Scott Burroughs, middle-aged and not quite the successful artist, manages to find the boy floating amidst the waves and wreckage. Having somewhat of a history in swimming, Scott is able to get himself and the boy safely, heroically, to the shore. Scott is soon thereafter greeted not with a hero’s welcome, but instead with accusations of conspiracy to assassinate the boy’s parents and the others that were on the plane.

Investigators are taught to ask the hard questions, and unfortunately,  this sometimes sheds a darker light onto mysteries surrounded by unfortunate circumstances. Why was Scott on a plane with ten other people worth millions of dollars? What was Scott’s true relationship with the boy’s mother, who seemingly “invited” Scott to make the flight with them? And how is it that Scott is the only survivor, save the little boy whose well-being Scott seems to be unusually concerned with? Instead of recognizing Scott for the selfless feat that he accomplished in swimming thirty miles to shore with a young boy on his back, the media tears apart supposed innocent coincidences in an effort to prove Scott guilty: all in the name of having someone on whom to pin the murder of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Hawley proves to be a master of weaving together pieces of a puzzle that he’s already solved, in a way that teases the reader so that putting down the book before the reader is satisfied is simply out of the question. By the end of the book, every single detail presented by Hawley falls into place and complements the whole in a way that leaves nothing unresolved. Before the Fall is an investigation that the reader is invited to participate in, carefully waging the forces of truth and fiction against each other in a skillful battle for liberation.