Wednesday, January 14, 2015

REVIEW: Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Original Publication Year: 2012
Genre(s): Non-Fiction, Biography/Memoir
Series: NA
Awards: Some reader’s choice awards, an Oprah pick
Format: Audio and eBook
Narrated by: Bernadette Dunne

In 7th grade I decided that my name was boring.  Stephanie.  A common named spelled in the most common manner.  I wanted to be different, far from common and ordinary.  So I informed my parents and anybody else that would listen that from that moment on I was going to spell my name Stefani.  Ooooohhhh.  Crazy!  This spelling actually stuck with me until I was about 25 when I started a regular job and realized that having the legal spelling and my spelling of my name be different was just confusing and that I didn’t really care anymore about how my name was spelled and whether it was ordinary or uniquely me. 

This whole name changing thing?  That’s pretty much the only thing Cheryl Strayed and I have in common.  She also (though she was 26) decided she wanted her name to be meaningful and uniquely her so picked the word Strayed as her last name.  Unfortunately this playing with our names was not enough of a common thread for me to really get into this book.   

There were a few reasons that had me really looking forward to Wild.  1) Last Fall I read Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things and really liked it.  I really identified with her overall message, was impressed with the level of her compassion and lack of judgment and the writing was beautiful.  It was a volunteer gig, obviously a labor of love and came straight from her heart and soul.  Why wouldn’t I love to read more about this woman’s life?  2) I do truly and perhaps somewhat too strongly believe in the transformative power of nature which seemed like it would be a major theme for Wild.  3) I’d loved Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods about hiking the Appalachian Trail and while this book promised to be a bit more angsty than Bryson’s book, there was a precedent for me liking tales of unprepared people trying to hike long arduous distances. 

The basic premise of Wild is this.  At the age of 26, Strayed has lost her beloved mother to cancer and has subsequently, in her grief, confusion, and immaturity, ruined her marriage of 6 years.  She’s confused by her feelings and her behavior - she feels lost.  She decides that she needs to test herself and to spend some time truly alone in order to get her bearings back.  She decides to hike a good chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail. 

 I’ve read a few reviews of the book that are scathingly critical of the author - calling her silly, stupidly reckless, shallow, egotistical and slutty.  I can’t honestly say that none of those words didn’t float through my mind as well upon occasion while reading BUT I also recognized them as being judgmental and truly unfair.  The fact is I’m a boring person. I would never have even considered getting married at the age of 19, would have been appalled if I even knew anyone who did heroin, and never in my wildest dreams would have been brave enough to go on a solo backpacking trip on the Pacific Crest Trail.  Cheryl would find me incredibly boring and in return I had a hard time really feeling how she was feeling.  I admire her guts but I also found her impulsive and reckless behavior a little ridiculous.  And she does seem to spend perhaps a little bit too much time in the book detailing how much everybody she encounters likes and admires her.  So I didn’t get along with the book as well as I’d hoped.

As a contemplation on grief and loss it left me feeling pretty cold.  I have experienced grief, (though not at as young an age) and yet her language of grief, the way she expresses it, the way she reacted left me unmoved.  In many ways this short review of C.S. Lewis’ work A Grief Observed written by Hilary Mantel expresses some of the same feelings that Strayed tries also to convey - the feeling of isolation and like your life has irrevocably changed and there is no going back.  However the Mantel piece had me gasping with sobs by the end of the third paragraph.  It’s not that Strayed isn’t a good writer but for whatever reason, while I felt sympathetic of her situation, I never felt her pain.

As a hiking tale it worked a little bit better for me but still not as I hoped.  I still prefer Bill Bryson’s informative yet utterly charming account of his ramblings along the AT. (I'm not sure how thrilled I am that I identify more readily with a middle aged man than a hip young Bohemian but it is what it is.)  However, her tenacity in finishing the her hike despite the scary trail conditions (snow), while frequently being completely devoid of cash and even after losing her boots is incredibly admirable. 

FINAL VERDICT:  In the end I think I hit this book at the wrong time, or the wrong age and I can’t help but feel that I am not the intended audience. My theory is that if you're more of a free spirit and tackle your life with gusto, consequences be damned, (and I say this with envy not criticism), I have no doubt you will enjoy Cheryl's journey. 

PS. The highlight of this book for me is the scene where Cheryl is accosted (in a friendly sort of way) by a runaway Llama!  If I did ever get a wild hair to hike the PCT, that’s how I’d do it – pack Llama in tow! 

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