Articles, Comment

Wild: The Movie!

Last year I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed and absolutely loved it. I read around it a fair bit too, reading lots of interviews with Cheryl and reading about the upcoming movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon. And now, finally, here is the trailer! The film will be released in December 2014 and I can’t wait to see it. Enjoy. 🙂

[You can read my review of Wild here.]

 

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Non-Fiction, Reviews

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Atlantic Books 2012 paperback cover

Atlantic Books 2012 paperback cover

Wild was published last year and I read quite a lot about it at the time. I like a good memoir, and since reading Martha Gellhorn for the first time last year I’ve wanted to read more travel memoirs and travelogues, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed seemed like a book for me. However, I always have too many books to read, and didn’t get around to picking it up until a couple of weeks ago.

This week just gone I started my new job in Oxford, temporarily commuting from Hertfordshire. This journey takes about 2.5 hours each way, so I’ve got lots of time to read – and this week I read the entirety of Wild, all 311 pages of it.

I was transfixed. I read the prologue on the Sunday night before starting the new job, and it got me straight away

The trees were tall, but I was taller, standing above them on a steep mountain slope in Northern California. Moments before, I’d removed my hiking boots and the left one had fallen into those tress, first catapulting into the air when my enormous backpack toppled onto it, then skittering across the gravelly trail and flying over the edge. It bounced off a rocky outcropping several feet beneath me before disappearing into the forest canopy below, impossible to retrieve. I let out a stunned gasp, though I’d been in the wilderness thirty-eight days and by then I’d come to know that anything could happen and that everything would. bUt that doesn’t mean I wasn’t shocked when it did.

My boot was gone. Actually gone.

She throws the other boot over the edge too.

What is one boot without the other boot? It is nothing.

This moment is somewhat pivotal in Strayed’s hike, when she is separated from the boots with which she began her mammoth journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches between the Mexican and the Canadian borders, going through California, Oregon and Washington. Four years earlier her mother had abruptly died from cancer, and since then her family had drifted apart, her marriage had ended, and she recently had managed to extricate herself from a self-destructive, drug-fuelled relationship. She picked up a book about the Pacific Crest Trail by chance while queueing to pay for a spade, and was so enchanted by it that she decided to hike the trail, despite no experience of hiking or backpacking. She also decided to do it alone.

Straight away I was astounded by her bravery and determination, even in the face of a muddle of a life and a lack of direction. Cheryl Strayed made a direction for herself, and it was north from the town of Mojave in southern California. From there she hiked up along the PCT, being ripped apart along the way by her backpack (which she aptly named ‘Monster’) and her boots. She had no idea how much she could carry, and when her bag was packed she could not lift it; and yet she carried it all the way up to the Oregon/Washington border. Again, the astounding determination.

Cheryl in front of Crater Lake. Image: facebook.com

Cheryl in front of Crater Lake. Image: facebook.com

Wild is ‘a journey from lost to found‘, as the cover tell us, and in many ways it is. Strayed made her journey along the PCT for several reasons: she was ‘very loose … in the world‘, still grieving for her mother and her marriage, and unsure of what she wanted or needed. Thus as she walks, she ponders her life, her family, her mother, her marriage. She makes decisions, and comes to realisations, walks and tries to find herself. But don’t get me wrong – there is no cheese or over-sentimentality here. Strayed is an intelligent and perceptive writer, honest and straightforward. She does not get carried away with emotional sentimentality or any sort of ‘woe is me’ attitude. She is tough on herself.

I’ve read reviews of Wild that condemn it as self-indulgent and self-pitying. Strayed was at a point in her life when everything was a bit of a mess, and so she starts a journey to sort herself out, and twenty years later she wrote about it. Is this self-indulgent? Surely memoir as a concept is always in some way self-indulgent? To read a memoir you’ve just got to accept that it is a whole book of someone talking about themselves and their experiences. But the good thing about memoir, which I love, is that as long as their story is an interesting one, you empathise, are entertained, hopefully learn something, and hear about a life that you have never experienced. A lot of people are really dull, but a lot of people are really interesting and intelligent. Cheryl Strayed is the latter.

I also loved the travel element and the descriptions of the amazing landscapes and natural wonders (Crater Lake in particular sounds unbelievable), and maybe it’s a bit hippy-ish of me, but I loved the connection between Cheryl and her surroundings. Her journey is emotional and psychological, but also intensely and often painfully physical. Her feet are ravaged, her backpack chafes and scars her skin, she loses weight and gains muscle, and her view of herself as an attractive woman shifts as she is unable to get dolled up or wear ‘sexy’ clothes, and interacts with men as ‘one of the boys’ rather than a potential sexual partner. She gets in touch with nature, and the animals of the PCT, and finds both loneliness and solitude, as well as a feeling of belonging.

I liked Cheryl immensely as a person, and I loved her writing too. You can tell she is a real writer in Wild, as she documents her physical and psychological journey, her meetings with fellow hikers and those based along the trail, the beauty of the landscape, and the fear she feels and refuses to feel along the way.

I was sad when I got to the end of this book; I wanted to spend more time with Cheryl Strayed and ask what she did once she stood up from that bench by the Bridge of the Gods at the northern border of Oregon. She got married, moved to Portland, had two children, and developed a career as a writer; but was there a feeling of anti-climax once she was done with the PCT? Or a sense of a new beginning? This was what I wanted at the end, as well as photos from Cheryl’s journey – these would really have enhanced the book. Luckily there are some online, particularly on Strayed’s Facebook page.

If you think memoir is too self-indulgent, then read something else. If you love travel books, memoirs, intelligent writing and a likeable narrator, read Wild.

*

Originally published in the USA in March 2012 by Knopf. Reprinted by Vintage and Atlantic Books in 2012.

Cheryl Strayed will be speaking on ‘Lessons on Fear and Healing‘ at The School of Life in London, on 14th October 2013.

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Fiction, Reviews

Perlmann’s Silence by Pascal Mercier

2011 Atlantic Books cover. (Image: goodreads.com)

(image: goodreads.com)

For his first novel, originally published in Germany in 1995 and only now being published in English, Pascal Mercier chose the academic world of linguistics as the background for the story. More specifically he chose a small group of professors meeting for a conference on the Italian east coast, in a seaside town not far from Genoa. Phillip Perlmann, a German professor, is our central character, the catalyst for the arrangement of the conference by his academic acquaintance and admirer Carlo Angelini. Recently widowed and obviously still suffering from the loss both consciously and sub-consciously (the latter becomes apparent in later stages of the book), he has had a long career but finds himself devoid of inspiration when it comes to writing a paper to present at the conference. He has also recently been invited to Princeton University in America, and will become an honorary citizen of the town during the Italian conference. This problem is the crux of the story – along with the fact that a Russian academic (Leskov) is unable to attend the conference but has sent the Russian manuscript of his work to Perlmann in advance. As Perlmann becomes increasingly nervous and desperate about his having ‘nothing to say’ he sits in his hotel room arduously translating the Russian text into English.

This task takes him almost half the 616-page novel. Having been told by the blurb that Perlmann’s fear and desperation lead him to an attempt to plagiarise Leskov’s text, by the time he comes to make the decision the reader knows it has been coming for some time. By the middle of the book the narrative has seriously begun to drag – Perlmann has become so neurotic and self-indulgent that one begins to find it hard to sympathise, though his situation is clearly dire.

Mercier is also self-indulgent. Page after page is dedicated to Perlmann’s anxiety and the act of moping in his hotel room and showering more than is surely necessary. His semi-reliance on sleeping pills seems superfluous, as if by having him depend on them (mentally at least) Mercier is trying to create a deeper personality that does not really exist, perhaps not even within the author’s mind. One begins to question Mercier’s skill as a writer – possibly the worst things a reader can doubt.

The novel is a little over 600 pages and one wonders whether this length is really necessary. The blurb’s synopsis suggests a depth of intrigue and thiller-esque tension, but this is simply not sustained beyond the first 100 pages, if that. The sheer length of this text seems to exhaust the author and protagonist as well as the reader – the story and the writing both begin to flag somewhere between 200 and 300 pages into the book. Momentum slows and seems to drag at the moment when the tension should be at its highest. Perlmann’s situation becomes increasingly desperate, but the reader becomes increasingly uninterested.

By the third section of the book and the coming conclusion, one does not really care about Perlmann at all anymore and is frankly relieved that this overly long text is coming to an end. Again we are given pages and pages of Perlmann worrying and waiting, counting the time until this or that happens. Again both author and character are self-indulgent and neurotic.

This is a promising novel and has moments of some truly beautiful prose – mostly early on – and it is no surprise that it was a bestseller throughout Europe in the 1990s. However, the rambling and indulgent plot structure overwhelm the skill of the writer that lies beneath the obsessional detailing of Perlmann’s worries and neuroses.

*

Published in October 2011 by Atlantic Books. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

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