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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail Paperback – March 26, 2013
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“Spectacular. . . . A literary and human triumph.” —The New York Times Book Review
"I was on the edge of my seat. . . . It is just a wild ride of a read . . . stimulating, thought-provoking, soul-enhancing." —Oprah Winfrey, on Wild, first selection of her Book Club 2.0
“Strayed’s language is so vivid, sharp and compelling that you feel the heat of the desert, the frigid ice of the High Sierra, and the breathtaking power of one remarkable woman finding her way—and herself—one brave step at a time.” —People (4 stars)
"An addictive, gorgeous book that not only entertains, but leaves us the better for having read it. . . . Strayed is a formidable talent." —The Boston Globe
"One of the most original, heartbreaking, and beautiful American memoirs in years. . . . Awe-inspiring." —NPR Books
“Cinematic. . . . A rich, riveting story. . . . Our verdict: A.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Pretty much obliterated me. I was reduced, during the book’s final third, to puddle-eyed cretinism. . . . As loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song. It’s got a punk spirit and makes an earthy and American sound. . . . The cumulative welling up I experienced during Wild was partly a response to that too infrequent sight: that of a writer finding her voice, and sustaining it, right in front of your eyes.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Brave seems like the right word to sum up this woman and her book. . . . Strayed’s journey is exceptional.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“One of the best books I’ve read in the last five or ten years. . . . Wild is angry, brave, sad, self-knowing, redemptive, raw, compelling, and brilliantly written, and I think it’s destined to be loved by a lot of people, men and women, for a very long time.” —Nick Hornby
“Devastating and glorious. . . . By laying bare a great unspoken truth of adulthood—that many things in life don’t turn out the way you want them to, and that you can and must live through them anyway—Wild feels real in many ways that many books about ‘finding oneself’ . . . do not.” —Slate
“Incisive and telling. . . . [Strayed] has the ineffable gift every writer longs for of saying exactly what she means in lines that are both succinct and poetic. . . . an inborn talent for articulating angst and the gratefulness that comes when we overcome it.” —The Washington Post
“Vivid, touching and ultimately inspiring account of a life unraveling and of the journey that put it back together.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Strayed . . . catalogs her epic hike . . . with a raw emotional power that makes the book difficult to put down. . . . In walking, and finally, years later, in writing, Strayed finds her way again. And her path is as dazzlingly beautiful as it is tragic.” —Los Angeles Times
“A fearless story, told in honest prose that is wildly lyrical as often as it is dirtily physical.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“This isn’t Cinderella in hiking boots, it’s a woman coming out of heartbreak, darkness and bad decisions with a clear view of where she has been. . . . There are adventures and characters aplenty, from heartwarming to dangerous, but Strayed resists the temptation to overplay or sweeten such moments. Her pacing is impeccable as she captures her impressive journey.” —The Seattle Times
“Strayed’s journey was at least as transcendent as it was turbulent. She faced down hunger, thirst, injury, fatigue, boredom, loss, bad weather, and wild animals. Yet she also reached new levels of joy, accomplishment, courage, peace, and found extraordinary companionship.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Strayed writes a crisp scene; her sentences hum with energy. She can describe a trail-parched yearning for Snapple like no writer I know. . . . It becomes impossible not to root for her.” —The Plain Dealer
“Brilliant. . . . Cheryl Strayed emerges from her grief-stricken journey as a practitioner of a rare and vital vocation. She has become an intrepid cartographer of the human heart.” —Houston Chronicle
“A deeply honest memoir about mother and daughter, solitude and courage, and regaining footing one step at a time.” —Vogue
“This is a big, brave, break-your-heart-and-put-it-back-together-again kind of book. Cheryl Strayed is a courageous, gritty, and deceptively elegant writer. She walked the PCT to find forgiveness, came back with generosity—and now she shares her reward with us. I snorted with laughter, I wept uncontrollably; I don’t even want to know the person who isn’t going to love Wild. This is a beautifully made, utterly realized book.” —Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted and Cowboys are My Weakness
About the Author
CHERYL STRAYED is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was the first selection for Oprah's Book Club 2.0 and became an Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon;Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a national best seller now the basis of the WBUR podcast Dear Sugar Radio, co-hosted with Steve Almond; and Torch, her debut novel. Her books have been translated into forty languages, and her essays and other writings have appeared in numerous publications.
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I'm not going to abandon my faith in Winfrey's literary tastes over one lousy selection, but it's fair to say that "Wild" represents everything I loathe about the Cult of Oprah, full of a feel-good narcissistic spirituality in which genuine introspection is sacrificed on the altar of self-esteem. "Wild" isn't content merely to inspire its readers to adopt Strayed's entitled brand of faux empowerment, however - this book could get someone killed one of these days.
When Strayed was 22, her mother was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer. A few weeks later, she was dead: so begins "Wild." They'd been close, and I accept that grief does strange things to people, but Strayed uses the loss of her mother to justify giving in to every self-destructive hedonistic impulse that crosses her mind over the next four years. (I've known people who lost a *child* and fell apart less.) She compulsively sneaks around behind the back of her kind, devoted husband. Even after she confesses her affairs, he remains loving and supportive, and she still loves him but decides to go through with a divorce anyway because, I dunno, *reasons*. She flirts lightly with heroin addiction (is that even possible?) and gets knocked up by a junkie. When the pregnancy test comes out positive, Strayed realizes she's come to a turning point in her life: "I was crying . . . over the stupid existence that had become my own. I was not meant to be this way, to live this way, to fail so darkly. I had to change . . . back to the person I used to be - strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good." So, of course, she makes an appointment with a psychiatrist, spends some time in rehab, buys a sturdy crib secondhand, and starts knitting little caps and booties.
Just kidding! She doesn't do any of that stuff. Instead, she decides the solution to all her problems is to spend three months backpacking on the Pacific Crest Trail in California. She doesn't know the terrain at all, and she's literally never been backpacking in her life, but she browsed a guidebook once when she was standing in line, and she's a pretty outdoorsy person, so she figures she can hold her own on an endeavor plenty of experienced backpackers wouldn't attempt without at least a year or so of directed preparation and training.
She buys the guidebook and reads it "a dozen times" in the months leading up to the trip (although when she actually gets out on the trail, she realizes there were "things I'd overlooked"). She goes to REI and buys a backpack and a pair of hiking boots and a tent and other equipment. And then there's the *really* necessary stuff: in a sentence that only truly rabid pro-abortion types seem to be able to read without cringing at least a little bit, she informs us, "I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink."
The reader might be excused for thinking, by the time Strayed arrives in the Mojave Desert to start her journey north, that she's actually taking the rigors and risks of this wilderness trek seriously. Then we learn of all the ways she *didn't* prepare. It turns out that at no point in the last few months did she bother to try out her equipment on a shorter excursion, even an overnight trip. In fact, it's in the hotel room where she spends the night before heading out on the trail that she packs her supplies into her backpack for the first time. She's brought two books for pleasure reading, a fancy camera, a foldable saw even she doesn't know what she's supposed to do with, and (of course) a pack of condoms, but it's not until she has all these packed safely away that she remembers, as a literal afterthought, that it would be a good idea to carry some *water*, too. (Did I mention she was in the Mojave *Desert*? In June, no less.) Finally, she's ready to go - and she's absolutely *stunned* to discover that her backpack is *heavy*! and unwieldy! and uncomfortable! I'd feel a sort of grudging respect that she decided to head out on her three-month trek even after she started to realize how hard it would actually be, if I weren't too busy marveling at her supreme idiocy.
At the time of this writing, this book is the #1 seller in Amazon's "Hiking & Camping Excursion Guides" category. I cringe to think someone might actually buy this book expecting to learn about the Pacific Crest Trail. I cringe even more to think that there are going to be Oprah-cultists and young "feminist and artsy and political" types who find this book (or the film adaptation) inspiring and decide to head out on the trail themselves. Several experienced backpackers, including PCT thru-hikers, have questioned the veracity of Strayed's account, but even if every word is true, what she did was dangerously reckless. Even readers with the sense not to follow Strayed's example, however, should steer clear of this book if they're actually interested in the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed has plenty to say about the small towns and "resorts" she passed through on the way to pick up supplies, and she recounts the discomforts of the trail in exquisite, sometimes gruesome, detail - but the beauty of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges are rarely given more than a general mention in passing.
Strayed's favorite subject is herself, and not in a good way. She wrings every drop of insight out of her grief, her fatigue, her memories, her trailworn body, and then she goes back for more. This kind of self-absorption is a little immature, but not unpardonably so, in a woman of twenty-six, but Strayed wrote "Wild" more than fifteen years after her journey on the PCT, and she still seems to believe she's living the most important life that anyone's ever lived. (So do we all, perhaps, deep down, even if we know better, but most of us don't expect the rest of the world to agree.) It seems that everyone Strayed meets on the trail is immediately taken with her and wishes to bend over backwards to make her life easier, and she accepts this basically as her due. Those few individuals who don't fall under her spell - the camp hosts who (because it's their job) insist that she pay for the use of a space in their campground (like everyone else staying there), a hippie she speaks to for five minutes who has the audacity not to recognize her when they cross paths again a few days later - are beneath contempt. Nearly every man she meets wants to have sex with her, even when she hasn't bathed or changed her clothes in a week. It takes several weeks before the trail humbles her enough to admit to experienced backpackers that she doesn't know what she's doing and could use their expertise. I might give Strayed credit at least for unflinching honesty in self-examination, but I'm not sure she's being honest about her faults so much as she is simply unaware that they're faults at all, just as it never seems to occur to her we might not actually care to (or might even actually care not to) read about "the coarse hair on [her] pudenda." (What kind of feminist uses the term "pudenda" anyway?)
I couldn't help feeling as I read that Strayed left gratuitous destruction in her wake everywhere she went. Her marriage, her unborn offspring, the tired old horse her mother had loved (but which she couldn't be bothered to find a veterinarian to euthanize properly) - all are burdens to be shucked aside lightly at Strayed's convenience. Particularly wrenching to my bibliophilic heart was the way Strayed lightens her literal load by burning the books she read on the trail. She claims that, as a book-lover herself, she hates having to do it - but she certainly gets used to it quickly. There were several occasions when she could easily have given a book away, or even left it for another hiker to find (maybe it would be ruined by exposure to the elements before someone happened along, but there's at least a chance it wouldn't), but didn't. So eager was she to lighten her load that she burned her copy of "Staying Found: The Complete Map and Compass Handbook" without having actually mastered the use of map and compass. The only book she carried all the way from the Mojave Desert to the Washington border was one she actually opened only twice the whole three months she was on the trail, because it was a longtime favorite and she had it practically memorized. She admits she had no reason not to burn that one too, but she didn't, because, I dunno, *reasons*, dammit! In the back of the book, after the Acknowledgements, Strayed includes a list titled "Books Burned on the PCT" - not "Books Read on the PCT," which would have been more accurate since it includes the one book she carried all the way and one that she traded for another book (which she did burn). It's almost as if she's proud of having consigned Faulkner, Nabokov, and Joyce to the flames. So casually does Strayed admit to destroying so much that is beautiful, I'm shocked she actually managed to hike over a thousand miles without starting a forest fire.
Fifteen years after her summer on the PCT, she went back to the place where her journey ended, with her second husband and their children, and it was "only then that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I'd always told myself finally revealed." Surely she means to share this secret with us, who have vicariously made the journey with her for 300 pages? But . . . no. Instead, she tells us that on the day she finished her trip, all she knew was "the fact that I didn't have to know" what it all meant, that "it was enough to trust that what I'd done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was . . . ." Apparently, that should be enough for her readers, too. Oh well, at least I don't have to go on a three-month hike of my own now to understand that if I did, it would *mean something*, even if I couldn't tell you precisely what.
All of this is really too bad, because "Wild" could have been an amazing book. I can't honestly say that I didn't enjoy the time I spent reading it. It's a well-paced, entertaining narrative about a remarkable experience. Strayed can actually write, too, at least when she's actually writing instead of showing off to the reader how well she can write. Unfortunately, there was just so much about this book that was upsetting and offensive and pretentious and ridiculous that it was hard to tell how much of my pleasure in this book came from enjoying it, and how much from the perverse, guilty thrill of loathing the woman who wrote it.
As a disclaimer, I would like to point out that I am not in the target audience for this book. I am 58 and male. I read the book because I am a backpacker. The book sells mostly to young, slim (probably athletic) women. Why do I make this assertion? I went to Cheryl Strayed's event and book-signing. 95% of the large audience (Ms. Strayed is a rock star) fit this target market. The other 5% probably came for the electronic, new-age musician.
If I were in the target market, if I had identified more strongly with Ms. Strayed (or her 24-year old self), I would probably have loved this book. If you can identify with Cheryl Strayed, then you may love this book.
If you cannot form this bond, you may dislike the book because of the follow reasons:
1. The language and metaphors are fairly pedestrian. I kept thinking, I have heard that analogy or phrasing in many books (often self-help books, no accident that Ms. Strayed was a self-help columnist). The author usually avoids obvious cliches, but if you reflect upon media discussions that focus on personal growth, you will recognize most of the language. For example, the author loves the adverb, "profoundly." She also uses some obvious tricks to make the writing seem compelling: sexual obscenities (not an objection for me, but more of an author tic) and exaggerating verbs -- "destroyed" for tired and "shattered" for distraught or depressed. Not terrible, but not Joan Didion or Dave Eggers.
2. Cheryl Strayed likes metaphor as the primary tool in story-telling (call it approach A). She made this comment in the event that I attended. Many authors, however, focus upon precise, sensory detail to show depth of character, point of view, voice and story development. For these authors (call this approach B), focusing upon metaphor creates overwrought story-telling. Approach B is not a law (no laws in story-telling). I, however, like approach B. If you like approach A, then read the book. To be fair, the author did use a lot of good detail, but it was not the primary driver for the story.
3. Almost all of the flashbacks to Strayed's last few years (of her drug-use, frantic-sex, relationship-destroying period) were linked to the on-the-trail narrative through metaphor. In addition to liking approach A, Strayed did not have much chance to really reflect or think about her mental or social problems on the trail. As she wrote, she was surviving -- wrestling with some incredible discomforts or worrying about some big problems (enough water or possibly woman-eating mountain lions). To weave her recent life problems into the narrative, Strayed, the writer, needed her thematic or metaphorical links. For example, coming upon a long, snowed-over section of the trail gives her an image and loose theme (snow and hardship) to write about how she had to shoot her beloved horse in the snow to euthanize the poor creature. That description would have stood better on its own; it was perhaps the most powerful mini-story in the book. It did not gain as a flashback from her trail problems. Moreover, the trail flow was broken unnecessarily by the horse story. She switched back and forth, through metaphor, repeatedly. Chopping up the PCT trail narrative this extensively diffused the trail tension. The metaphors were not strong or original enough to overcome the structural problems.
If you, however, feel a deep, powerful identification with the author, this structural point will probably not be a problem for you.
4. While focusing upon metaphor, the author avoids some obvious problems and explanations: Her pre-trail use of heroin ballooned into an almost daily habit for months. People become strongly addicted when using heroin at this frequency. Ms. Strayed never mentions withdrawal after stopping the habit almost cold-turkey. If she had suffered withdrawal, it would have been a horrific experience. Why did she avoid mentioning that issue?
Likewise, when she takes a serious fall, dropping down a rocky trail with her impossible-to-carry pack, she writes about the aftermath as if she had suffered a painful but superficial knee-scrape. Reality check: when I have suffered falls that severe on a trail, I have torn ligaments or cartilage, effectively ending my trip. It seems that Cheryl Strayed is blessed with extremely good luck after a number of ordinarily crippling events (high frequency injections of street heroin, falling hard down rocks with a 50 lbs. backpack crushing her, almost getting raped by some lunatic, getting her feet so blistered that most skin peeled off...). Are all the escapes and endurance-of-crippling-pain possible? Yes. If you are a Navy Seal. Memory is subjective, and any of us can enhance a story from repeated retelling.
5. The author's pre-trail behavior (extreme impulsiveness) fits borderline personality disorder (BPD). This impulsiveness suggests much more than just Strayed's explanation -- grief. Grief could have triggered this mental illness, but not explained it. I can understand that Strayed did not want to crimp her character's possibilities with a psychiatric diagnosis. BPD, however, is a serious and real mental illness, and its treatment almost always means a much longer ordeal than a three month hike. Although a three month wilderness journey can be life-changing, it is almost never a cure for serious mental illness. Again, the author endures almost unbelievable mental and physical hardship, and never slows in her forward motion.
Finally, what kept me reading was not the description of the wilderness (which was interesting), but rather my curiosity about how Cheryl Strayed would tie together all of her themes and potential solutions. She did it, characteristically, with some metaphors. (Crater Lake was a mountain with a heart torn out, that eventually healed -- like her.) As far as how she got herself together enough to stop life-threatening impulsiveness: inexplicable trail-magic transformed her -- somehow loosening the grief inside of her. (She wrote that the trail was not just a journey outside, but more of a journey inside. I think of literary types advising: show, don't tell. The words "inside" and "outside" are lackluster figures of speech and poor substitutes for "showing" descriptions of the internal or external.) I came away thinking that Strayed was waving some magic wands of metaphor, and not telling the whole story -- perhaps in many ways.
The Kindle format -- one final point:
The quotes from literature under the section headings on my Kindle (a new, basic version) are garbled. These same quotes in the print version are right justified, and are readable. The quotes in the Kindle version are crushed as a one-character column on the right margin and continue, scrambled, for multiple pages. They are unreadable.
Amazon and readers need to do something about shoddy publishing products. We are paying $12.99 for this e-book. Readers need to demand more -- have an old iPad for example to buy a clean version if it is available. Also, protest when publishers deliver this crap. Likewise, Amazon needs to get publishers to deliver well-formatted ebooks. Or, in the long run, writers need to bypass these publishers.