Friday, December 21, 2012

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room: A Novel     When I first heard about Room I was scared off by the subject matter—a woman is kidnapped and held captive in a shed for seven years.  During those seven years she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son named Jack.  Room came out not too long after there were a few big stories in the news about real women who had been held captive for several years.  This story seemed too real and too recent so I shied away from Room.  Then I listened to a discussion of the book on Slate’s Audio Book Club, and though the subject matter still turned me off I was intrigued. 

The entire story is told from five-year-old Jack’s point of view.  Jack was born in the shed (or rather the room) and has never known anything other than the room.  It is his whole world.  His mother has worked hard to create a safe world for him, a world where they sleep, eat, learn, and play.  He doesn't quite understand why his mother doesn't love the room as much as he does.  I was worried about a story written entirely from a five-year-old's point of view would turn out, but it worked.  Jack is smart, but not annoyingly so.  Somehow Emma Donoghue manages to convey the mother’s desperation and fear, while at the same time showing the wonder of the world as only a child can see it, all through Jack's voice. 

I’m so glad I picked up this book.  It is amazing.  If not for work and other life matters, I would have finished it in a matter of hours.  I actually knew many of the plot twists before picking up the book from listening to the podcast and yet I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what was going to happen next.  This is one of the best books I’ve come across in awhile.  Definitely recommend.

Friday, December 14, 2012

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

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

The last two books I've read, The Longest Way Home and Wild, have been what I call travel memoirs. This got me thinking about what makes a good travel memoir. Or put another way, what should one expect from this genre?  For me a "travel memoir" should provide a sense of the place traveled to and if the destination or mode of travel is unusual, also a sense of how to travel or what it takes to make the kind of trip the author took. Notwithstanding the above, a better name for this genre might be travel related memoirs, because the travel often takes a backseat to the memoir part of the equation.  It is the entry point into the memoir.  Memoir implies something personal and so in a travel memoir I also expect something personal to the author - why the author made the trip, how the journey changed him or her, or what made his or her journal unique. Without the personal it would just be a guidebook, and without a sense of the destination and the literal and figurative journey to get there, it would just be a memoir, and probably not a very good one.

With this idea of what a travel memoir should be, I am not sure how to characterize Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  It felt like two stories in one – a travel narrative and a memoir – that didn’t quite sync up with one another.  With regards to the travel portion of the story, I didn't get much of a sense of the PCT or what it takes to hike the PCT. This is partly because, and I don't Strayed would disagree with this, she didn't exactly know what she was doing when she set out.  Her first day on the trail begins with her packing and trying on the pack she would carry for the next few months for the first time. Admittedly I do not know much about hiking and the only backpacking I've done was backpacking across Europe a few times, but even I knew to test out a full pack before starting my trip (to make sure I could handle the weight).  Her pack is ridiculously overweight, a fact that does not go unnoticed by the many people she encounters on the trail.  She brings the wrong fuel for her camp stove and an ice ax that she doesn't know how to use. At one point a fellow hiker on the trail calls her the hapless hiker, a most suitable nickname.  The fact that she survived this trip without serious injury is remarkable in itself (that is if you don’t include her poor her feet which were squeezed into boots that were too small for a significant part of her trip).  

The travel story was also problematic because for me at least, I never got a sense of what it felt like to hike the PCT.  The trail itself just didn’t come through.  I know now that there are deserts and mountains, that the trail is sometimes hot and cold, but the full picture never materialized.  Obviously, this is a very personal response.  In contrast, when Strayed describes being at her dying mother’s side I felt like I was in the room with them.

What I did get a sense of was Strayed herself. Hapless hiker she may have been, but she was also incredibly brave and determined.  This was clear even when Strayed was in her self-destruct mode.  This is period before the hike, when Strayed was mourning her beloved mother who died of cancer.  After her mother's death Strayed fell apart and she went into self-destruct mode which manifested in doing things like cheating on her husband and shooting heroin.  Hiking the PCT was her reset button.  Getting away from everything and everybody seems to have been what she needed to start her life over from a healthier place.

Notwithstanding the personal story about her mother and her family, something was missing in Wild. The story begins with Strayed in this emotionally bad place (in mourning, recently divorced, doing heroin) and ends with her at the Bridge of the Gods ready to pursue her dream of being a writer, no longer needing heroin, and generally with a new lease of life, but there wasn’t a clear sense of how Strayed went from point A to point Z, of her change process.  In contrast in McCarthy’s memoir his thought process plays out against the canvas of his travels.  In Strayed’s case she starts out one way and at the end of the hike, she’s different.  She bounces between the past before the trail and her present on the trail, but the thread connecting them is tenuous as most of her reflections about her life choices seem to have come after the hike, not during the hike.  She’s a different person, a healthier person at the end of her adventure, but it is not clear how she became that person.  In fact at times it seemed like the hike was something that happened in the middle of her life, like a commercial break during a television show that had little to do with what happened before or after the hike.  Conqequently Wild seemed like two unconnected stories, neither of which was wholly satisfying.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down by Andrew McCarthy

The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down

The Longest Way Home is part travelogue and part personal memoir.  Long time travel writer (and of course actor) Andrew McCarthy chronicles his quest to find the courage and the strength to give himself more fully to his fiancee (now wife) and two children.  He struggles between wanting to be close to people, especially his family, and resisting the closeness.  Where his fiancee/wife loves being around people, McCarthy craves alone time.  There's a distance between him and the people around him, the distance being both figurative and literal.  After he and his fiancee decide they are finally going to actually get married, McCarthy plans a series of trips around the world, and when he wants to get away, he really gets away.  His trips take him to Patagonia, Kilimanjaro, Costa Rica, and the Amazon.  (Okay, he also goes to Vienna with his fiancee and soon to be in-laws and to Baltimore where his best friend grew up.)

I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.  McCarthy's physical and personal journeys were interesting and easy to relate to.  His writing shifts easily between his literal and figurative journeys, much like the way one's minds work.  One minute he's looking at a flea and the next he's remembering a conversation with this fiancee.

I'm not giving anything away to say that he and fiancee eventually do make it to the altar, that is made clear at the beginning of the book, it is only a question of how he'll get there and what emotional shape he'll be in.  I can't remember the exact wording but there is an old adage about how no matter how far you run you can't outrun yourself.  That is more or less the situation in which McCarthy finds himself.  He could travel to the ends of the earth but he will still have to deal with himself.  As he travels McCarthy does just that, sorting himself out emotionally and mentally.  Reading McCarthy's story sparked my own wanderlust, figuratively and literally.  I have a feeling I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Boy Toy by Barry Lyga

Boy Toy

Barry Lyga's Boy Toy covers the difficult territory of child molestation.  The story vacillates between  Josh as a 12 soon to be 13 year-old and later when he's an 18-year-old high school senior.  At the age 12 Josh meets Eve Sherman, his history teacher and the woman who would introduce him to sex before he reached his teen years. 

Almost as disturbing as reading about Eve's seduction and molestation of a child, was reading about the reaction of Josh's parents, the police and prosecutor.  Understandably Josh's parents, police and prosecutor want to see Josh's molester convicted and sent to prison.  The problem is they are so wrapped up in achieving their goals that no one pays much attention to how Josh feels.  He is reluctant to cooperate and no one really asks or seems to care why.  Instead they threaten him and make him feel guilty for not helping them more.  For years afterward he blames himself for what happened between him and Eve, not realizing he was victimized.

"I was molested. When I was twelve. And everyone in the world knew it except for me."

I found this story to be powerful and heartbreaking, but also hopeful.  At the age of 18 Josh is struggling.  He doesn't trust himself and is only beginning to heal.  Lyga's writing is emotionally compelling and raw.  One might argue that the parents and other adults are a little one-dimensional.  On the other hand, given that the story is told from Josh's point of view the less than fully realized adults makes sense in context.  In sum, though the subject matter is difficult, I wholeheartedly recommend Boy Toy