The “I” in the title to this post refers to my husband, Mr. A.M.B, who recently finished Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
I have to be honest that nothing about the premise of this book interests me — it sounds like a cliché adventure and self-discovery story to me — but I love how much my husband loved it. He’s convinced me to add it to my TBR list.
Here’s his review:
When I think of Oprah’s Book of the Month club, I mostly recall, with distaste, the James Frey fiasco (including the frustrating way they made up afterwards), and, with amusement, the beef she had with Jonathan Franzen (which was also quashed, more understandably so). I personally think her club is a positive force in our society — anyone who encourages millions of television viewers to turn off the TV and read John Steinbeck is fine by me — but it’s not where I’d look for book recommendations.
And yet, I just finished and enjoyed another* recently-published book from her club (or, rather, from her new “2.0” club), Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, about her rather ill-conceived idea to hike the “PCT” in the wake of her mother’s death, the breakup of her marriage, and her addiction to heroin.
I didn’t know it was in Oprah’s club. I found it by way of the blog Farnam Street, which briefly mentioned it while actually discussing the release of Strayed’s new book, Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of the advice columns she wrote as “Dear Sugar.” Farnam Street recalled reading Wild “cover-to-cover on a flight,” so that “[w]hen the pilot announced that we’d be circling Heathrow for 20 minutes, I was the only one happy. I only had a few pages left.” The column he excerpted was then so whimsical and heartfelt that I felt obliged to get at least one of the books. I went for Wild, as I was about to get on a plane myself for a business trip.
Given the considerable attention devoted to the book — it’s now a movie, too — there’s little use in me reciting that it is, like Amazon’s own review says, “a story that inhabits a unique riparian zone between wilderness tale and personal-redemption memoir.” It is as good as the reviews say; if it sounds like something you might like, then odds are you’ll like it.
As nature writing, Wild makes no claim to the inquisitiveness and erudition of, say, John McPhee. As memoir, Strayed’s life even before 30 is so senselessly tragic — half the result of fate, half the result of her own mistakes — that it’s easy to block it out entirely. But what makes this book is how it cannot be pigeonholed as a travel memoir or a grief observed. It is rather a careful, thorough, honest telling of Strayed’s journey, emotional and physical. Much of the charm comes from her naïveté about the natural world and, in turn, about her own nature:
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 wasn’t 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 both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadn’t truly understood the world’s vastness—hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be—until each mile was beheld at walking speed.
Importantly, Strayed is not “wild,” nor is her writing “raw,” as several of the reviews called it. Wild is not, say, a recollection of reckless times by a person who remains just as unhinged today (e.g., Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) nor an effort to understand the foolish choices of another (e.g., Into the Wild). Rather, with the benefit of time and reflection and maturation, Strayed can explore and explicate the whirlwind of emotions she went through on her trip, sometimes prompted by coincidences (like being on the trail on what would have been her mother’s birthday), sometimes prompted by nothing at all — making it deeply personal while also universally relatable.
Here’s the part that particularly hit close to home for me: At the end of her journey, which happens to be at an ice cream stand, the only other customer there strikes up a conversation, in which Strayed explains her journey. This conversation ensued:
“That’s incredible. I’ve always wanted to do something like that. A big journey.”
“You could. You should. Believe me, if I can do this, anyone can.”
“I can’t get the time off of work— I’m an attorney,” he said.
Ouch. Perhaps it’s time to get out of the office more.
* The other book that I read and enjoyed, and which happens to be on Oprah’s list, was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I read both of the Franzen books and liked neither. Speaking of so-called “men’s literature,” like McCarthy and Franzen, I noticed at the end of the book that Strayed thanks her “stellar writers group,” which included none other than Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk.