I’m weird about the books I read. If something has become popular, a fad, an explosion, I’m reluctant to read or purchase. I don’t know what it is. I’ve never wanted to follow popular trends because I want to be the trend that is being followed. That’s a big confession for me to make. But in the past few months, I’ve finally caved on two books that everyone was telling me “You must read” or my favorite, “You’re a writer; you’ll love these.” The first was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (click here for my review), which I loved in a strange sort of way. But those who urged me to read it were right. It’s an excellent book even though the subject matter made me feel squeamish. That’s a good thing from my perspective.
The second time it happened was with the nonfiction book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. For two years, folks urged me to read this book, but I’m stubborn. It took watching an interview on 60 Minutes with Reese Witherspoon, who produced and stars in the movie, to give it a try. Once again, I read a book that made me squeamish. But it also made me feel something as a human being who’s lost too many close friends and relatives, and as a writer, who appreciates an exceptional tale told from the first person perspective.
I give Ms. Strayed extra gold stars for writing this book as a memoir. It means she’s writing her life and putting it out on the page for all of us to examine. It’s not her imagination–I hope, since she’s calling it a memoir–it’s her reality, and it’s raw, painful, and inspiring.
I kept thinking as I read it about the power of her words and about how brave she was. Yes, she was brave–and perhaps a bit naive and stupid–to set out to conquer the Pacific Crest Trail. She was alone and wholly inexperienced. She did it out of pure instinct, and I admire that. But even more, I was in awe of her ability to expose herself to us, the readers. She writes about her life in raw and rugged terms. She is honest about her failings, and the failings of those around her. There were times when I saw myself in her universal expression of what grief feels like. And when that happened, when I saw myself in her prose, I felt something else. I felt respect and awe of Cheryl Strayed as an author and as a fellow comrade. She knows how to reach in and pull all the innards out of an experience. She created the characters that peopled her journey in minute detail, so they were as real to me as they were to her on the PCT. That’s a rare quality for an author to achieve.
Of course, she had the outstanding setting to provide the backdrop for most of the story. But it was the interspersing of her personal details of how she found herself 6,000 feet above the ocean that makes this book compelling. The painful parts from her mother’s death to her divorce are all there while she makes her way from California to the Columbia River on the border between Oregon and Washington.
I want to thank Cheryl Strayed for writing such a phenomenal book. And I apologize that her popularity almost stood in the way of me reading it.
It’s inspired me. I know I can’t hike that trail, but I can dream and plot about my escape on a boat for one long summer season, where my husband and I travel from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River to Cairo, Illinois, where it meets the Mississippi. From there, we can go anywhere.