Tag Archives: Cheryl Strayed

Favorite Memoirs of 2015

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Memoirs really grabbed me this year. There was something about reading real lives, real reactions, real people that got under my skin in 2015. It didn’t help that NPR’s Fresh Air show often features memoirs (I have many on my TBR list). Here are some memoirs that sucked me in!


Cheryl StrayedWild

by Cheryl Strayed

I finally got around to reading this book in January of 2015. I had a disastrous time with the audiobook, but loved the film. It’s worth the time to read Wild. Strayed doesn’t romanticize her mother (in fact, she admits the reasons she could hate her mother, too). She doesn’t over-exaggerate her hiking accomplishments (Strayed admits she’d been lucky for most of her journey, that she was helped by many, and that saying she was ill-prepared is a massive understatement; she always seemed inches away from being another Christopher McCandless).

Wild also isn’t a heavy reflection; sections about her mother are smoothly transitioned into the story, so the focus is on the hike, but the motives for the hike are not lost. Though she thought she would spend the 1,100 miles thinking about Bobbi, Bobbi’s death, and the resulting poor choices, Strayed admits she thought little about those things. Instead, she is physically and emotionally broken down and rebuilt by the inclines and declines of the mountains, predators (man, animal, and weather), and the literature she reads and writes.

Read the full review here!


cover chastCan’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

by Roz Chast

Roz Chast’s graphic novel examines the dying process (my choice of words, not the author’s) of Chast’s extremely old parents, George and Elizabeth. George and Elizabeth were born a few days apart in 1912 and only a few blocks apart in Harlem. Their parents were Russian immigrants who came to the U.S. with nothing but misery.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is a moving memoir from the perspective of an aging daughter who details what it’s like to deal with parents who are so very elderly, and also so very stubborn. Chast is honest in her portrayals, including how she abandoned most of her parents’ belongings for the super of the apartment to deal with, and how using money to house her parents in assisted living was cutting into her inheritance, which did and did not concern her. This graphic novel also takes a realistic, deep look at anxiety and the effects parents have on their children.

Read the full review here!


letpretendthisneverhappened11

Hamlet von Schnitzel, actual taxidermy mouse the author owns.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened & Furiously Happy

by Jenny Lawson

Lawson grew up in a tiny town in Texas with her younger sister, lunch lady mother, and taxidermist father. Living in relative poverty and having a father who constantly brings home animals, both dead and alive, makes for an influential childhood. Then, Lawson meets a college student in a book store named Victor, who is from a wealthy family, and the two marry. After much heartbreak, Victor and Lawson have a child named Hailey, and they live happily ever after in Texas. The end…sort of!

I found myself eager to return to Lawson’s life, and I appreciated that she kept the focus of the book on her. As soon as she had a baby, I worried the memoir would turn into one of those books about how funny moms think their kids are. It didn’t.

Read the full review here!

furiously-happyWith Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson spent ten years composing a single memoir. With Furiously Happy, she got it down to somewhere around three. As a result, the stories are contemporary and do make reference to current cultural markers. Again, Lawson include fights with head-shaking husband Victor (I’m so glad they didn’t divorce; I was sure they would), and there are mentions of daughter Hailey, but Lawson respects her child’s privacy and mostly leaves Hailey out of it. Furiously Happy is a much more introspective book.

Read the full review here!


cover fun homeFun Home

by Alison Bechdel

Bechdel focuses on her father, a man who obsesses over appearances, including that of his house, children, and personal clothing. The house looks like something out of a Victorian novel. He also forces his children to look nice, encouraging–and then belittling for not obeying–the author for not adding feminine touches, like pearls, to what he considers a dowdy outfit. Alison Bechdel confesses that she would rather dress like a boy, and readers discover that her father would rather dress like a girl (and has). The two exchange clothing advice in a surreptitious fashion for years, living vicariously through the other.

If you’re up for a bit of a challenge, you’ll love Fun Home. The weaving of past and present, psychology and action, is complex and reveals a person who has extracted meaning from a complicated, lonely childhood. Even better, the images as all professional looking–no cartoony images, no bright colors, no squiggly-doodly pictures.

Read the full review here!


Tomboy CoverTomboy

by Liz Prince (read our interview here)

31-year-old comic artist Liz Prince shares her history as a tomboy. All through elementary and middle school, Prince is tormented. No one wants to play with her, she hates all things girly, and classmates begin to question her sexuality. High school is a huge problem area until Prince finds a group of friends who are more open-minded. Tomboy is a graphic memoir that will have readers nodding along in recognition as Prince analyzes what it means to be a tomboy in a society that tells men and women how to be from birth.

If you read this book, you may find yourself experiencing some intense emotions you hoped you’d forgotten upon high school graduation. Yet, the analysis Liz Prince includes will help you think about why children were so cruel, perhaps why you were cruel, and that we all share a universal terrible time in grade school (even the popular kids are hiding something awful). Tomboy is a powerful memoir.

Read the full review here!


Sarah leavittTangles

by Sarah Leavitt

This graphic memoir that recounts 8 years of turmoil in her life beginning with when she suspects something is wrong with her mother, Midge, and ends with Midge’s death. Leavitt’s father, Rob, cares for Midge at home for as long as he can. Meanwhile, Leavitt, her younger sister, Hannah, and Midge’s sisters, Debbie and Sukey, help Rob support and care for Midge while her brain deteriorates from Alzheimer’s disease. Tangles refers both to the complicated relationships in the family caused by the disease and the very curly hair that both Leavitt and her mother possess.

Tangles really would be impossible to finish if Leavitt didn’t balance the challenges of Alzheimer’s with small moments that Leavitt and her family treasure.

Read the full review here!


In 2016, the first memoir I plan on reading is a book I picked up at a conference called PHD to PhD.: How Education Saved My Life by Elaine Richardson. The cover explains that PHD stands for “Po H# on Dope.” Published in 2013 by Parlor Press, the synopsis of this book reminds me of why I went into teaching. Here’s the description from the publisher:

“There was a time when Elaine Richardson was one of ‘the Negroes everybody pointed to as the Negroes you didn’t want to become.’ The title of this book is no metaphor or allusion, but a literal shorthand for a remarkable, unpredictable journey. She inherits a plain way of talking about horrific pain from a mother who seemed impossible to shock. The way too fast way she grew up was and is too common, but her will to remap her destiny is uncommon indeed. To call her story inspiring would be itself too plain a thing, hers is a heroic life.”–dream hampton (writer and filmmaker)

Po Ho on Dope

 

Wild (paperback)

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TITLE: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

AUTHOR: Cheryl Strayed
PUBLISHER: Vintage Books
PUBLISHED: 2012
PROCUREMENT: Bought it myself
RELATIONSHIP TO AUTHOR: None
ADDITIONAL MATERIAL: movie review, audiobook review

With a pack so big she nicknames it Monster and boots so small she loses 6 toenails, Cheryl Strayed becomes a mini legend on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. She is nicknamed Queen of the PCT, neither for her hiking skills nor longevity, but because she is a woman; therefore, people she meets are more likely to give her things that they typically don’t share (food, shelter, favors, rides).

As a young woman, Strayed is married at 19, but her only serious attachment seems to be to her mother, Bobbi. Nonetheless, Bobbi receives little kindness from a pretentious, and sometimes bitter, daughter who says things like she is much more sophisticated that Bobbi was at her age and that Bobbi doesn’t read “serious” literature, which is a waste of time. Bobbi’s optimism is a bit infectious: she says, “Well, my time has never been worth all that much, you know, since I’ve never made more than minimum wage and more often than not, I’ve slaved away for free.” Strayed is angered by her mother’s happiness, both in the moment and later on the hike. The intense feelings Strayed has regarding happiness says something about the hearts of American’s today. We feel anger about so much: bad pay, high rent, huge debt, decades of student loans, poor food, shoddy health care. Strayed’s reflections on her mother’s positive outlook suggest much can be made with little, and though Bobbi has little, she is able to live with love in her heart.

When she learns she will die, Bobbi does have a moment of panic: “I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life….I always did what someone else wanted me to do. I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I’ve never just been me.” At the time, Strayed doesn’t know what to do; she is young at 22. However, ending the section with Bobbi weeping about her personal identity gives the reader room to think about what it means to be “just you.” The complex web of Bobbi—wife, mother, daughter, student—demonstrates a social connectedness that makes her part of something larger that we all seek. Strayed can’t exist in that web without her mother, so the Pacific Crest Trail becomes what she connects to. There are no people in her web, since her brother, sister, step-father, and ex-husband have scattered and left her loose. The trail, the symbolic brown boots with red laces, and ridiculously heavy pack are the threads that Strayed weave to belong—to anything, really. In reality, she is no one’s daughter, mother, or wife. On the PCT, she is part or something.

It’s worth the time to read Wild. Strayed doesn’t romanticize her mother (in fact, she admits the reasons she could hate her mother, too). She doesn’t over-exaggerate her hiking accomplishments (Strayed admits she’d been lucky for most of her journey, that she was helped by many, and that saying she was ill-prepared is a massive understatement; she always seemed inches away from being another Christopher McCandless). Wild also isn’t a heavy reflection; sections about her mother are smoothly transitioned into the story, so the focus is on the hike, but the motives for the hike are not lost. Though she thought she would spend the 1,100 miles thinking about Bobbi, Bobbi’s death, and the resulting poor choices, Strayed admits she thought little about those things. Instead, she is physically and emotionally broken down and rebuilt by the inclines and declines of the mountains, predators (man, animal, and weather), and the literature she reads and writes.

On Being Self-Absorbed

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We Tweet our every thought. We put pictures of what we’re eating on Instagram. We post selfies with faces that we don’t really make normally and share them on Facebook. We’re self-absorbed.

So, if we’re already pre-conditioned to read what people share about themselves, then why do book reviewers keep writing that the authors of memoirs are “self-absorbed”?

Yes, self-absorbed.

I’m flipping through the reviews of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild on Goodreads. Almost 2/3 done myself, I wanted to see what others think. On nearly every page of reviews that loads, at least one Goodreads user calls Strayed “self-absorbed.”

Recently, the New York Times calls Lena Dunham (her, not her memoir) “…acerbic and vulnerable; self-absorbed and searching; boldly in your face and painfully anxious.” Even Doris Lessing hasn’t escaped being called “self-absorbed” in her autobiography. Too, Elizabeth Gilbert is frequently attacked for being self-absorbed. Anna North of Jezebel looked at Gilbert’s second memoir and noted the following:

Eat, Pray, Love made me feel like Gilbert’s life was easy because it was “easy for people to be sweet to her.” What was I supposed to learn from that?

North’s question brings up an important point: are readers supposed to connect to the memoir that they read, or is the memoir meant to share foreign experiences? Readers often comment that they dislike a memoir because the authors made decisions that the reader herself never would have made (having an abortion, taking up a religion, getting high, shopping frantically, disrespecting her mother, whatever).

I’m now asking myself the simple question: What does it mean to be self-absorbed in a memoir?

Is this something of which we’re only accusing women? When Jonathan Franzen was self-absorbed, it was because purposefully turned a hard mirror on himself. John Cleese was self-absorbed, too, in his memoir Fawlty Towers, though it was called an “exercise in self-absorption.” Granted, the review of Cleese’s work is not positive, but why is him being self-absorbed an “exercise” of sorts, whereas women are themselves self-absorbed? Reviewers, possibly unintentionally, suggest men calculate when they think about themselves too much, but women cannot help but be obsessed. So, is this the age old problem of society telling women that they’re too involved with themselves, that their time and attention is better spent elsewhere: the husband, the children, the kitchen?

What memoirs have you been reading? Would you consider any authors “self-absorbed”?

Wild (film)

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This was my second book-to-film cinema experience this weekend. This time I watched Wild with Reese Witherspoon starring as Cheryl Strayed, a woman who walks the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The movie was released December 5th to a limited number of cities (not mine) and this morning was the earliest I could get there. Wild has been on my calendar since I heard when it would be released, so those extra two weeks were frustrating. The movie, of course, is based on Strayed’s wildly successful memoir of the same title. I did a brief and not-totally-helpful review of the audiobook earlier this year.

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The movie begins with Strayed on the side of a mountain removing a hiking book and shrieking. Her big toe nail is barely hanging on, and as she removes the offending nail and screams in pain, one of her boots falls down the side of mountain. In frustration, she flings the other boot off, too, screaming, “Fuck you, bitch!” Now, this part was both awful and funny—for some reason, perhaps the early show time (10:40am), I was the youngest person in the theater by about 40 years.

Through flashbacks and less-than-one-second clips of film, we learn that Strayed is recently divorced and grieving the death of her mother, a woman who was the “love of [Strayed’s] life.” Between the death and the divorce, Strayed has intercourse with anyone who asks, including her restaurant customers (sometimes more than one at a time) and bar patrons, but she no longer is intimate with her husband. She’s smoking and shooting heroine to be “happy.”

The sexual aspect of this film very carefully delivers a message that too often gets confused in America: just because woman did something promiscuous in her past does not mean she’s “asking for it” in the present.

While on the PCT, Strayed only has one sexual partner, and the rest of the time she fears for her physical safety. Men constantly imply she’s “that kind of girl” and try to get her alone. They inch toward the notion that if only she’d put out, she’d get something in return: food, a ride, shelter, water. I mean, come in; what kind of woman walks 1,000 miles alone (goes the thinking). The way Strayed seems practically chased down the PCT as she tries to escape would-be rapists made me feel like I was running too, from a fear that women must always assume could turn into a reality. At one point, Strayed sees two hunters. After they spend too much time with their hands on their low-slung belts and talk about her like she’s not there, Strayed claims she’s leaving. Around the bend, she sets up camp and changes into her pajamas only to realize one of the hunters has followed watched her change. He says he likes the way her hips and legs and “tight ass” look in her pants. Strayed asks that he not say that, but he retorts that women don’t know how to take a compliment. Sound familiar? We’ve been discussing what constitutes sexual harassment in America so much lately, and Wild addresses it over and over and over again. It was a strong aspect of the film–my favorite, in fact. I was so proud when one man tells Strayed “you sound like a feminist” like it’s an insult, and she replies, “I am.”

While much of the movie is walking and Strayed talking to herself, the flashbacks come in at key moments and overlap with the present, suggesting Strayed can’t tell the difference. At one point, she looks in the window of a cabin only to see an x-ray of her mother’s spine, which is covered in tumors. Other times, songs send Strayed back. For instance, a song on the radio reminds Strayed of her mother singing in the kitchen. Annoyed, Strayed tells her mom (played by Laura Dern) to stop singing because there is no reason to be happy: they are both full-time waitresses, college students, and they will have loan debt for the rest of their lives. Strayed’s mother reminds her daughter to find the best version of herself and cling to it. Strayed remains fiercely annoyed and disappointed. At one point, she even feels the need to tell her mom that she is a more sophisticated woman than her mother was at the same age. The scenes between Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern were beautiful. Dern has the right kind of rugged look mixed with a soft side that suggests she’s been through a lot, but is a delicate and beautiful person nonetheless. Dern almost comes off as an “everywoman’s mother,” making it not so hard to believe she could be in your kitchen singing and taking to you.

The other characters in the cast had the same harsh look to them, but not as much softness. This is a good thing. Strayed’s friend Aimee has thick, unplucked eyebrows, messy hair, and lacks make-up. She looks like the most regular woman in the nation. Strayed looks much worse: her face is bruised from walking into branches, there are massive bruises/rashes/bloody spots everywhere her pack contacts her body, her feet are covered in blisters and bleeding, and she seems to have huge half-dried scabs on any part of her that’s pointy (knuckles, knees, elbows, etc.). The beauty in this is that the movie doesn’t take the story of a woman on the edge of life and death and make her Hollywood glamorous. As much as I love Katniss Everdeen, ever notice she always has at least some mascara and lip gloss? Such touches distract from a film in which a woman is fighting for her life.

The only part I couldn’t get behind was the fox. After a while, it’s clearly a metaphor for Strayed’s mother watching her on the PCT, but the creature was a fairly pitiful computer generated image. Also, Reese Witherspoon seemed pretty insistent on biting down spoons whenever she ate, which in a Dolby Digital surround-sound theater is pretty loud and awful. Clunk, clink, chomp, swallow. Lots of it. Finally, during the credits actual photos of author Cheryl Strayed on the PCT were displayed, but they didn’t appear right away, so most of the theatergoers had left. I stayed because I assumed it would be a huge mistake if the filmmaker didn’t take the opportunity to compare Witherspoon and the author, and I was justified.

Overall, Wild doesn’t need to be “touched up.” It doesn’t need unnecessary drama, explosions, fight scenes, or other fanfare that has become standard in American film to keep our preoccupied brains at attention. In fact, much of the film relies on internal monologue, brief dialogue, or silence—even if Strayed’s heart is screaming. Instead, the movie says something about Americans today: the way they act and react to a world that can close down its jaws and bite hard.

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