Friday, July 20, 2012

book review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

The basics: In her early twenties, Cheryl Strayed was reeling from both the death of her mother and the break up of her marriage. She spontaneously (and somewhat recklessly) decided to hike the Pacific Coast Trail for three months by herself in the summer of 1995.

My thoughts: I'll let you in on the one fact about me that continues to absolutely baffle Mr. Nomadreader: I really want to hike the Appalachian Trail. He thought I was kidding when I first mentioned it. To be fair, we'd been together for years before it came up, and he was well aware that not only have I have never been camping, but I am also generally frightened of the woods, animals and anything that suddenly moves. (I proudly drink out of my "I'm outdoorsy in that I like to get drunk on patios" coffee mug.)  He knows I immensely enjoy comfortable beds, couches, air conditioning, good food and modern toilets. He's right. I have no desire to simply go camping, but I do still have a desire, and a longing, to hike the Appalachian Trail. I remain in awe that one can walk from Georgia to Maine (or vice versa.) Granted, I spent some very formative years in Atlanta with people who did enjoy the outdoors, and hiking all or part of the trail was a common activity for many of them. Will it ever happen? I can't imagine getting enough time off work to be able to do it.

But enough about me. Despite my normal aversion to the outdoors and memoirs, I was intrigued by Wild. Cheryl Strayed's writing is gorgeous and honest and painful. I don't think this memoir would have been possible much earlier in her life. She needed distance from her twenty-something self to write with this level of clarity and unapologetic strength. With almost twenty years hindsight, she manages to make her stupid, early-twenties actions not only easy to relate to, but she also provides the ultimate context to keep the tale from being utterly depressing: we know she makes it. Even knowing the ending from the beginning, I read without putting this book down. I cried. I actually hugged the book when I finished it.

I read this memoir in a single day. The more I read, the more intrigued with Strayed I was and the more enraptured with her writing I became:
"I was as searching as I was skeptical. I didn't know where to put my faith, or if there was such a place, or even precisely what the word faith meant, in all of the complexity. Everything seems to be possibly potent and possibly fake."
Wild is the wonderful type of non-fiction I love because it is as emotionally real as great fiction is to me. I haven't loved a memoir this much since Eat, Pray, Love (I do sometimes wonder if I would loved that book as much if I read it for the first time today, in my early thirties, as I did when I read it in my mid twenties, but, of course, there's no way to know.) They're completely different memoirs, but Gilbert and Strayed both write with an admirable amount of honesty. And they both write with immense wisdom.

Wild isn't perfect; in the first eighty pages Strayed is sometimes redundant as she sets both the present of the memoir time (1995) and her past (pre-1995.) As the narrative moves on, she goes into more detail about some stories already mentioned, and this repetition dragged down the narrative in some of those early moments. Despite these minor structural issues: I wholeheartedly recommend Wild. The writing and honesty are empowering and beautiful. I recognized a lot of my twenty-something self in Cheryl Strayed, albeit not the details, and she made revisiting it seem uplifting and cathartic rather than embarrassing.

Favorite passage:  "Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren't a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the PCT had altered that sense. Alone was not a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before. Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel a bigger and smaller to me."

The verdict: Despite not being a fan of the outdoors or memoirs, I adored Wild. Strayed's writing is as refreshing as her honesty. Even though the map at the beginning outlines her journey and the ending is never in doubt, I turned the pages with suspense, but I read slowly to savor each word of her prose.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 336 pages
Publication date: March 20, 2012
Source: library

Convinced? Treat yourself! Buy Wild from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

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16 comments:

  1. I loved Eat, Pray, Love and I've been seeing a lot of positivity around about Wild. Going on the wishlist!

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    1. Bex, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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  2. I've always admired those that have made the trek. I could never do it. I haven't been camping either, but have a deep appreciation for the outdoors, and the Appalachian trail is no doubt a thing of beauty. I've seen this memoir again and again and wondered if it was worth the read. I'll have to find a copy at the library.

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    1. Beth, I think you'd like this one. It was fascinating and beautifully written.

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  3. *sigh*

    This one is HIGH (tippy top) of my to-buy list with The Twelve and The Song of Achilles.

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    1. Ooh...good company. I'm waiting until the third in The Passage trilogy comes out to read all three, but I also enjoyed Song of Achilles (although not as much as Wild.)

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  4. I HATED this one so much!! BUT, I hear you on the hiking. Have you read Bryson's A Walk in the Woods? You must if you haven't. It's a different kind of book but funny as hell.

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    1. We can't always agree:-). I read A Walk in the Woods years ago and did enjoy it.

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  5. I have heard mixed things about this one, and am not sure if I would read it, but the fact that it explores what it's like to take the ultimate outdoor trek makes me curious about it. I, too, am eager to go hiking at times, though my ambitions aren't as big as yours. The problem is that I dislike heat and bugs and wild unidentifiable snakes. All things that I would probably see on a hike. I will have to give this one a closer look. Thanks for the great review today!

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    1. Zibilee, I hate bugs and heat too (and how do you survive central Florida's heat?!)

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  6. I really liked this book too and I'm happy to see a positive review of it after seeing quite a few negative reviews.I think she didn't shy away from showing how dumb she was about a lot of stuff (who isn't in their 20s?) and I too enjoyed just hearing about her doing the hike. I hope you do at least part of the Appalachian Trail someday. Have you read Bill Bryson's book about it -- A Walk In The Woods? You should check it out if you haven't read it already.

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    1. Yes, it's nice to be in good company when everyone else seems to dislike a book! I have read A Walk in the Woods, but I'm thinking I should re-read it one of these days because it's been so long!

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  7. Imkeep reading negative reviews of this, but I'm really excited to read it, so knead happy to see your positive one. I'm not always huge fan of memoir, but I'm starting to get into it again.

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    1. LBC, I'm a peculiar memoir reader. I read so many great ones a few years ago, but a few bad ones have put me off of them. This one reminded me of how wonderful they can be, but for me, the writing is key.

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  8. I had this checked out, but had to return it because I didn't get to it before it was due. It's definitely going back on my TBR list once the craziness of summer winds down a little. Glad to hear you liked it so much!

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    1. Emily, I absolutely adored this one and was so glad I could sneak it in in only one day before my copy was due back at the library! I didn't expect it to be such a captivating read that I could not put it down!

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Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!