Monthly Archives: September 2015

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild Cheryl StrayedWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

2012. Alfred E. Knopf. ebook. 338 pages.

Recommendation from: Sophisticated Dorkiness

In a nutshell:

In 1995, Cheryl Strayed was twenty-six years old, she solo hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) for three months. Cheryl’s decision to hike the PCT was a desperate bid for reinvention, after the swift, tragic death of her mother sent Cheryl into a spiral of self-destructive behavior that destroyed her marriage. Though ill-prepared for the rigors of the trail, Cheryl manages to find transformative moments through acts of self-reliance and the generosity of strangers. The story of the trail is interspersed with flashbacks to key moments and people from Cheryl’s past.


I’m very late to the game, but I loved this book. I found both the trail story and Cheryl’s life story to be engrossing. Four years ago, I wrote that my favorite subgenre of nonfiction is the travel memoir, specifically travel memoirs where things don’t go according to plan. So, Wild was right up my alley in that regard. Indeed, the prologue in this book is about an event late in Cheryl’s thru-hike, when she accidentally knocks one of her hiking boots irretrievably into the forest below her resting perch. Immediately, I was hooked – what did she do after that? How did she get to that point in the trail?

The rest of the book lived up to the prologue. The terrain of the trail and the grueling nature of thru-hiking is fascinating on its own. However, the story is just as much about the people that Strayed meets on the trail, who are varied and fascinating. Her combined youth and gender and solitude prompts incredulity but also particular kindness and concern from strangers. There is only one incident, on a side-trail (not the PCT), where a person responds to that youth, gender, and solitude by implying threat.

Along with the suspense of the trail hike, there is an emotional heft to Wild. In particular, there is an encounter with a fox and a story about her mom’s horse that made me cry. Those flashpoints were effective because they were grounded in a narrative full of vulnerability. As I think about the emotional quality in Strayed’s writing, my mind jumps to Sufjan Stevens’ song “Chicago”. There seems to be a spiritual kinship between that song and Wild. It’s about acknowledgement (“I made a lot of mistakes / in my mind, in my mind”); it’s also about the connection of travel, and land, and freedom, and being recreated.

I liked that insight was not derived mainly from the beauty of nature, by some magical sunset or stunning panorama. Rather:

The thing that was so profound to me that summer – and yet also, like most things, so very simple – was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial.

Indeed, most of the hike is characterized by the continual effort just to move forward, but “there was a hardly a day that passed that didn’t offer some of what was called trail magic in the PCT vernacular – the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.”

Of course it would be a mistake to consider nature a stern but ultimately benevolent deliverer of epiphanies and personal growth. In Wild, Strayed gives due respect to the dangers of nature even if her younger self was not wholly prepared for them (though she learned).

A book worthy of its bestselling status, Wild is an engrossing, moving read.

Before I close this post with excerpts from others’ reviews, I have to say that many of the negative reviews I found were incredibly judgmental and I couldn’t bring myself to link to any of them. A comment on one such review floated the theory that fans of Wild were the type of people who didn’t read much. I guess I should check to see if I still have my reader credentials then.

BookNAround – “The backstory at the beginning of the book is rather slow going, albeit generally necessary, and not as engaging as her struggles, dogged perseverance, and soul searching on the trail, so the narrative is unevenly paced and the ending is extremely rushed.”

Sophisticated Dorkiness – “the memoir could have easily turned melodramatic or self-pitying. But Strayed never goes there. There’s a sense of wisdom to her writing and a sense of distance from this experience that let her write about it in an almost serene and matter-of-fact way.”

Sorry Television – “But my favorite thing about Wild—over the rando hikers and animal encounters and the time Strayed’s boot accidentally flies over the side of a mountain—is the book’s lack of overworked “aha” moments.”


Filed under Uncategorized

Mini-reviews: The Girl on the Train, The Silver Star, A Drink Before the War

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2014. ebook. 336 pages.)

In a nutshell: The Girl on the Train is a suspense/mystery featuring an alcoholic recently divorced woman named Rachel who gets herself involved in a missing-person case in her old neighborhood. The narrative is also told from the missing person’s perspective – Megan – chronicling the year or so before her disappearance. There are also a few first-person segments given to Anna, the new wife of Rachel’s ex-husband.

My thoughts: I liked that Hawkins didn’t spare the humiliating, despairing and desperate aspects of Rachel’s alcoholism. Rachel is constantly crossing the line, such as creepily lurking by her ex-husband’s house and deceitfully insinuating herself into the confidence of the missing person’s husband. She is not someone that you would trust or expect to solve the mystery, but by virtue of being where she shouldn’t be, she might actually know key information. I thought that was a pretty bold approach.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery, thanks to the author’s misdirection, a bit of trickery that seems contrived in hindsight. Still *SPOILER* the reveal that Rachel was gaslighted throughout most of her marriage was chilling.

All in all, I thought it was a solid suspense novel. It kept me interested. The casting for the movie adaptation seems excellent: Emily Blunt as Rachel and Rachel Ferguson (Mission Impossible 5) as Anna? Yes please. Haley Bennett was recently cast as Megan, but the only time I’ve seen her in a film is when she played the pop star ingenue in Music & Lyrics, so I don’t have a bead on how well she would do in the role.

The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls (2013. Hardcover. Scribner. 267 pages.)

In a nutshell: When Bean and her older sister Liz are abandoned by their mother, they take a cross-country bus to their estranged uncle’s house in Virginia. In Virginia, they discover family history and seek to settle in, but their new life is threatened when they defy the “big man” in town, Jerry Maddox, the mill foreman.

My notes: I’m a huge fan of Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle and I also liked Half-Broke Horses, the novel based on the life of Walls’ grandmother. Unfortunately, The Silver Star is not a good novel. It had a promising start: I liked the resourcefulness of the girls, and was invested in their adjustment to their new life in Virginia. The school system in their new town had just been integrated; Bean connected with her father’s family, and these elements would have – should have – been enough for a perfectly fine tale. However, I think the book went all wrong with the Jerry Maddox courtroom drama plotline. It sucked out all the atmosphere that had been pleasantly taking shape. Bean’s character becomes increasingly less believable as she spouts off ideas and insights that seem way ahead of her time and age. And then the book delivered its ending way too neatly and conveniently for my tastes. In short, The Silver Star was a disappointing follow-up to Walls’ previous work.

A Drink Before the War (Kenzie & Gennaro #1) by Dennis LeHane (1994. Paperback. Mariner. 282 pages.)

In a nutshell: Private eyes Patrick McKenzie and Angie Gennaro are hired by powerful men in Boston to find a cleaning woman who they claim has made off with important documents. When the simple case turns suddenly violent, McKenzie and Gennaro discover that the case has put them in the sights of a prominent gang leader. Further complicating matters, Boston itself is on the verge of a gang war.

My notes: I’ve never read LeHane before, though I’ve seen at least one movie adapation of his books (Mystic River). I enjoyed this novel. I liked that McKenzie and Gennaro aren’t shy of getting their hands dirty. That can be the fun of private eye stories, as opposed to police procedurals (which I also like). The investigators’ web of acquaintances – from journalists to McKenzie’s uber-violent but loyal bodyguard of sorts – fill out the gritty vibe of the book. The private investigators see a lot of action in the novel, including a car chase scene through a landscape of urban decay.

Angie Gennaro as a character seemed a little too filtered through McKenzie’s gaze, since the first-person narration was from his perspective, but overall I enjoyed them as a team. Though rather 1990’s in its emphasis and terms, the themes of race and power in A Drink Before the War were resonant with this year’s headlines.

I would read more of LeHane’s work, and more from this series. Later Kenzie & Gennaro books were made into movies that I have not seen: Gone, Baby, Gone and Moonlight Mile. I don’t think the first three or the fifth books have ever been adapted.


Filed under Uncategorized

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814)

I first read Mansfield Park, when I was a teenager and had been disappointed in it at the time. This past June, I listened to Mansfield Park as an audiobook on the long drive from Maine to Virginia, which meant that I became really invested and would gasp when Mrs. Norris said something particularly condescending to or about Fanny. It did drag toward the end, I thought, but overall I liked re-reading it. [The following review contains spoilers and since it’s a classic novel, I’m being lazy and not providing a summary of the plot.]

In the popular mind, Jane Austen’s novels are often thought of as great romances, sometimes to reductive effect. Mansfield Park is satire, and moral dilemmas, and not a romance at all. Sure, in the end: Fanny marries Edward, but that is just a matter of tidiness, not really the drive of Mansfield Park at all.

In that vein, Fanny’s rejection of Henry Crawford is refreshing. He fits most of the parameters of the “reformed rake” that populates many of today’s romance novels (not knocking the genre, just citing the trope). All of the other characters, including Edward, are encouraging Fanny to accept Henry but she doesn’t like him and doesn’t think he has good character, and she likes someone else. Fanny may be lacking the spark that other Austen heroines have, but this thread of stubbornness was welcome.

If there is an emotional center, it may be about Fanny finding a place to belong. Like Eliza Doolittle, her refinement at her uncle’s house has made her a bad fit for her original home. But because of her parentage, she’s considered a lower tier resident at Mansfield Park. Mostly though, the book’s merits are in its characterization. Nearly all of the characters display a good deal of thoughtlessness and vanity, but in such well-drawn, differing varieties. The Crawfords are the objects of fascination as characters who are fun but rather morally ruined. Mrs. Norris is the entertainment by being delectably awful. Mrs. Bertram is indolence, in extremis. And so on.

While it’s possible that some readers have taken Fanny into their heart, I’m afraid I cannot, though I did identify with her at points because Fanny is such a classic introvert. I definitely liked Mansfield Park much more this time than when I was a teenager, as I can more fully appreciate Austen’s incisive observations of human character. But there wasn’t a lot of warmth to attach to in this one, no fondness like I developed for Mr. Tilney and Catherine on my re-read of Northanger Abbey.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Care’s Online Book Club – “Jane Austen’s ability to be cool and snide is beyond compare.”

The Parchment Girl – “In short, Mansfield Park is a serious novel and not for the faint of heart, but it is worth it.”

Wuthering Expectations – “I do not think that Mansfield Park is more ethically complex nor that the portrayals of the characters are so different than in Austen’s other novels, but that the creation of a thicker fictional world, and the characters’ interaction with it, is itself a major artistic achievement.”


Filed under Uncategorized

The Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden

greengage-summer1958. Pan Books. Paperback. 187 pages.

Recommendation from: A Book Blog of One’s Own


I read the lovely Greengage Summer back in June, my first time reading Rumer Godden. Inspired by an event from Godden’s own childhood, the book is about a English family’s vacation to France gone awry. The story is narrated by a thirteen-year-old girl, Cecil Grey, the second of five children. She explains that three years separates each of the siblings, as “Father’s expeditions usually lasted three years.” (He is some sort of botanist.) One fraught day at the beach, their exasperated mother decides that they must go visit the battlefields of France (this is after WWI) so they can learn to be less selfish and appreciate what others have sacrificed for them. Their mother whisks the children off to France, to the disapproval of her much older brother, Uncle William. She almost immediately falls seriously ill, and by the time she and the children arrive at their hotel Les Oeillets, she must be hospitalized. Too proud to send for Uncle William’s help, she implores a fellow Englishman at the hotel, named Eliot, to look after the children at the hotel.

The children basically become wards of the hotel for weeks. They roam the grounds, and have their favorite spots and activities soon picked out (the title refers to the hotel’s greengage plums upon which they gorge themselves.) Though concerned for their mother, they also revel in the new sights and culture and their relative freedom.

Through Cecil’s eyes, you see the children, particularly the oldest girl, Joss, try to navigate the world of the adults of Les Oeillets. The children come to love Eliot, as he listens to them, and treats their concerns and interests seriously. But to use my favorite quote from the movie The Matador, “Just because we shared a laugh, doesn’t mean I’m not unsavory.” The reader quickly realizes that Eliot’s motivations regarding the children are not purely compassionate. In part, he carries on with them because of an infatuation with Joss, who is sixteen and beautiful. But he is also playacting with them, acting out a different life as if he were a family man.

The hotel is run by Madame Corbet and Mademoiselle Zizi, who may lean toward French stereotype, but are fascinating characters all the same. They are often motivated by jealousy. Madame Corbet is jealous of Mlle Zizi’s time with Eliot. Mlle Zizi is jealous of Joss. Joss is provoked, then, to asserting herself as an adult, though she is not really ready to be one. Cecil herself is envious of Joss’s beauty, feeling herself the plainer sibling, but she is not spiteful about it like Mlle Zizi.

Other hotel staff and guests fill out the remaining adult characters, including an older teenager named Paul who fills Cecil in on all the history behind the hotel personalities. His view of the world, shaped by a life of hard knocks, is rather shocking to Cecil but an education in its own way.

I loved the characters of the children most of all. I have a fondness of stories that feature strong sibling bonds, and there is plenty on show in The Greengage Summer. Each child has a distinct personality, and their knowledge of each other’s strengths and flaws rang true as a portrait of sibling life. And though the story is narrated by Cecil, there are bursts of commentary from the siblings, and even Uncle William at times – framed as if Cecil is consulting them as she writes their story. These commentaries and Cecil’s own narration hum with portent; there are hints of awful events and revelations to come. At the same time, the book is able to conjure up the languor of summer, the pains and pleasures of coming-of-age, the delight in travel.

The writing is insightful, evocative and entertaining. The structure of this short novel is impeccable. I read somewhere, or perhaps one of my fellow book club members remarked, that Greengage Summer‘s pacing is like that of a play – a comparison to which I fully agree. There are nearly demarcated acts, and with each act, the story builds and builds until the brilliant conclusion, where you realize that the childrens’ story intersects with a completely different type of narrative, and they are “rescued” in a way that I found hilarious and poignant at the same time.

One of my favorite books so far this year, The Greengage Summer was an excellent early summer read. Here is an excerpt from the beginning of the book, which reads like the voice-over narration of a classic film’s first scene (perhaps the camera is floating through the aisles between the orchard trees as it is spoken):

On and off, all that hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages. Joss and I felt guilty; we were still at the age when we thought being greedy was a childish fault, and this gave our guilt a tinge of hopelessness because, up to then, we had believed that as we grew older our faults would disappear, and none of them did. Hester of course was quite unabashed; Will – though he was called Willmouse then – Willmouse and Vicky were too small to reach any but the lowest branches, but they found fruit fallen in the grass; we were all strictly forbidden to climb the trees.

The greengages had a pale-blue bloom, especially in the shade, but in the sun the flesh showed amber through the clear-green skin; if it were cracked the juice was doubly warm and sweet. Coming from the streets and small front gardens of Southstone, we had not been let loose in an orchard before; it was no wonder we ate too much.

“Summer sickness,” said Mademoiselle Zizi.

“Indigestion,” said Madame Corbet.

I do not know which it was, but ever afterwards, in our family, we called that the greengage summer.

Cue title card.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Bibliolathas – “Godden’s characterisation of [Cecil’s] naïveté yet concomitant loss of innocence is astonishingly good.”

The Literary Stew – “This is a book that grows on you. Whenever I read something about Godden, images from the book come back to me. Flashes of that summer, lying on the grass eating the greengages, having the first taste of champagne and exploring the countryside.”

Teresa at Shelf Love – “Godden very wisely makes it clear that Joss’s growth in itself is just a thing that happens, that she is in no way to blame for what others think . . . Her attention to Joss’s predicament and Cecil’s mixed feelings about this new Joss is consistently respectful and honest.”

A Work in Progress – “Godden is obviously quite comfortable residing in the heart and mind of a child yet she tells this very nuanced story with simple sophistication . . .  I love her writing style which is so lush and fitting for the story she told.”


Filed under Uncategorized

National Book Festival 2015

On Saturday, I attended the National Book Festival 2015 in downtown D.C. This is the 11th time I’ve attended, and the 2nd time it has been held in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. It used to be held on the National Mall. The convention center is huge but so were the crowds. Friends who went to see authors such as Tom Brokaw or David McCullough were turned away at the door because the rooms were full.

In between attending the authors’ presentations, I was madly texting in order to rendezvous with seven friends (including one cousin) who were also at the festival. Good news: I know a lot of bookish people! Bad news: my phone’s battery ran out.

In the midst of all the madness, I enjoyed seeing five authors:

Louise Erdrich received the Library of Congress award for American fiction. I was ten minutes late to her session, so I may have missed the actual awarding, but I was able to hear the majority of her interview with Marie Arana, former editor of the Washington Post’s Book World. At one point, Arana listed off authors that Erdrich has named as literary influences: Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Katherine Anne Porter, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Flannery O’Connor. Of the last, Erdrich remarked with a smile, “that dark dark blackness in [O’Connor’s] heart is in my heart too.”

Arana and Erdrich both pushed back against the magical realism label sometimes assigned to her work. Erdrich sees the label as a way to “take care” of story elements that occur outside of reality, a way of not acknowledging that there are inexplicable things in the world.

Erdrich said that The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is one of her favorites of her own books, which just strengthened my desire to read that book. Asked by an audience member about contemporary authors that she connects to, Erdrich first mentioned fellow Festival authors Marilynne Robinson, Jane Smiley and Marlon James. Then she said she was currently reading through Joyce Carol Oates’ work, and Annie Proulx, and Elena Ferrante’s books. Erdrich also highly recommended The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabo which is about a friendship between two women and features the best dog character she’s ever read.

After lunch, I went to see Claudia Rankine. I’d seen her once before when she came to my college over ten years ago. She was a guest speaker at the poetry workshop class I was taking. I still have her book Plot from taking that class. But the book I brought with me to the Festival was her newest work, Citizen.

After taking the stage, Rankine said “this book wouldn’t have happened without my friends”. In the process of writing this book, she had asked her friends: can you tell me about a moment that was ordinary and then racism interrupted that moment? The friends’ immediate answer was no, they couldn’t specifically recall, but inevitably, after a couple of days, they would contact her, and then the stories would “pour out like water.” Some of these stories are found in the pages of Citizen.

Rankine read at least four passages from Citizen. Her reading of the “Stop-and-Frisk” was particularly powerful – especially the repeating refrain of “And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.”

An audience member’s question compared her work to Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I was glad of, because I had been reading both Coates’ book and Rankine’s book in the week leading up to the Festival. Rankine said she saw a similarity in that they both stayed close to home in order to go wide.

Of Black Lives Matter, Rankine called the movement a revolutionary interruption, radical in trying to change the interior space of Americans, in not allowing the anonymity of privilege while black people are being killed.

I later lined up to get my book signed by Claudia. She had a very warm presence, as she had on the stage. She signed her inscription by crossing out her printed name and writing “me, Claudia”.

IMG_0910An afternoon session I had planned on attending was full, so I wandered around a little bit before getting in line for the “Contemporary Life” room. I had already planned to attend a 4:25pm session in that room, and figured why not just plant myself there early. It turned out that the 3:30pm author was Hector Tobar, whose new nonfiction book Deep Down Dark tells the story of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped for 69 days after a mine collapse in 2010. They were eventually rescued, a drama I remember seeing played out on live television. Tobar said, as a journalist, it is most important to communicate that you, the journalist, are a human being and that (paraphrasing) “I am not just here to mine you for facts and you are not just a source of facts.”

Several co-workers had passed around a copy of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn‘s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which is what drove me to attend their talk. Their newest book is called A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity. The talk came across as oddly disjointed – perhaps it was an unevenly edited version of a longer talk they are more used to giving. Still, I am intrigued by the topic which is “the emerging science of changing the world”, a data-driven examination of what actually works to make lives better. WuDunn emphasized early intervention, those critical first two years of a child’s life as the brain is going through so much transformation. Kristof also compared what methods would help ensure regular school attendance by children in certain developing countries. Part of the solution is de-worming children (the worms deprive children of the nutrition in their food, and the ill health that results discourages school attendance.)

The last author I saw was Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower (about Al-Qaeda) and Going Clear (about Scientology), and his newest book, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David. I’ve read Going Clear. Wright spent the majority of the talk on the subject of Thirteen Days in September. It’s a historical moment that I know very little about, so I was fascinated by Wright’s descriptions of Carter, Begin and Sadat and definitely want to read the book.

Afterward, five friends and I regrouped, grabbed pizza at nearby Wise Guys, and shared about the authors that we had seen. My friend Jenny was geeking out over a sign language interpreter that had seamlessly interpreted a bilingual reading. She had hit the book sales area three times – I had been with her when she excitedly realized that poet Homero Aridjis was standing in front of her just as she was reaching for one of his books on the sales table. My cousin Jason and friend Kristin swapped notes on Evan Osnos, and his book on China.

Pizza finished, some of us wandered off to get gelato and then we dispersed into the night, tired but bookishly content.


Filed under Uncategorized