Archive for the ‘Non-Fiction’ Category

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Let me preface this post by saying that it might come across as a little biased. I love Cheryl Strayed. I was never going to not adore this book. That doesn’t mean that Wild isn’t a wonderful, fantastic book, however.

I’ve been meaning to read Wild for a long time. I’ve been a fan of Cheryl Strayed ever since I found out she was the Sugar behind The Rumpus’s “Dear Sugar” column. If you’re not familiar with it, you should definitely check it out. It’s an advice column unlike any you’ve read before. It’s equal part beautiful prose, advice from the heart, and personal stories. A bunch of us discovered the column in a creative writing class in college, and from that point on Sugar became one of the guides I took with me through the end of college and into the real world.

I took with me phrases like “write like a motherfucker” and the kind, gentle advice from “Tiny Beautiful Things” into the real world. Sugar was like a friend. I felt this strange connection with her. I was thrilled when I got to meet her, just a few weeks before I left for Prague. She was in Iowa City promoting Wild, which had just come out. One of my English major friends drove down from Minnesota to go see her with me. I bought both her books and had her sign both of them. It was awesome. She exudes this peaceful, calm energy that makes you want to sit and listen to her tell stories and truths about her life forever. Or maybe that’s just because I’d spent most of the previous spring clinging desperately to “Dear Sugar,” rereading several of her columns and forcing myself to believe that graduation wasn’t going to be the end of the world.

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Anyway, Wild is the story of how, at 26, Strayed, after a 3-year spiral into darkness and drugs following her mother’s death, decided to heal herself by walking part of the Pacific Crest Trail. Unlike most people, who plan for years and practice and meticulously prepare for this hike, Strayed just sort of up and did it with only a few months of preparation. In this book, she recounts her transformative journey.

loved it.

Strayed is a great writer. She’s good at writing about things that affected her profoundly and reflecting on them in a way that isn’t constantly preachy or reflective. This is something I still need to work on. Pretty much every creative-nonfiction piece I write winds up sounding like a sermon, and when I read them back even I get annoyed with myself. I appreciate when people are able to walk that line between telling us what they got out of experiences, while leaving us room to draw our own conclusions and have our own thoughts about them.

On another note, I’ve always had a very strong sense of wanderlust, so I really like books where people travel and have profound experiences (except for Eat, Pray, Love. I couldn’t get into that one). Wild was no exception. I suddenly had a profound desire to hike the Pacific Crest Trail or take a month to backpack through Yosemite or the Rockies or something. Nevermind that I have never been backpacking in my life, I hate camping, and I am not cut out for carrying a giant backpack over rough terrain and not showering for days on end. I wanted to.

Maybe someday I will. I probably won’t go off on my own without a clue like Strayed did, but maybe I’ll go have some sort of spiritual journey of my own sometime. I just hope that I don’t have to get hooked on heroin and drown in grief to be transformed, because that’s not going to happen. At the heroin part isn’t, and I certainly hope the grief part doesn’t.

Either way, I recommend Wild if you’re looking for comfort and a good read that will make you want to hike and explore nature. One warning though – it’s an emotional read. I’m not a very emotional person; I rarely cry even when things are sad, and books and movies never make me cry. That said, Wild had me tearing up by page 20.

Rating: *****

Book #88: Christ Stopped At Eboli

For my next book, I read Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi.

It’s Levi’s reflections on the year he spent as a political prisoner for his resistance to the Italy’s Fascist government during the Ethiopian war.

The village where Levi spent his exile seems to exist outside of time and independent of the rest of the world. There peasants live just like their ancestors did, as if they are unaware of the modern world and what’s going on outside their society.

Levi reflects a lot on what it’s like to spend a year here, where time has stopped and progress has passed it by.

Christ Stopped at Eboli is one of those books that makes you go quiet. It feels so complete, perfect, and beautiful that I don’t feel like I can say much about it.

It was a beautiful, moving reflection about time and progress and I sort of want to just let it sit and speak for itself.

Yes, this post is a bit of a cop-out. But sometimes it’s just hard to find things to say about certain books.

Rating: ****
Up Next: Fingersmith

Book #85: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings

Somehow, I made it to this point in my life without ever having read Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.

I’d always seen it as one of those coming-of-age things that you should read growing up, but if you miss that window between 15 and 20 when it’s most meaningful, it’s not that big of a deal. Angelou’s book means a lot to a lot of people, but I wasn’t terribly bothered that I hadn’t read it.

I was (a little) wrong.

I couldn’t relate much to Angelou’s story – I didn’t grow up poor and black in the South – but there are some things about growing up that are pretty universal (duh). Angelou tells her story with precision and art.

She addresses really painful and sensitive issues like racism and sexual abuse with tact and art, while still not shying away from the painful reality of what happened. Add that to apt descriptions of the confusion and general discomfort of growing up and struggling to make sense of an already complex, confusing world, which is something everybody can relate to.

And what’s more, the woman is a damn good writer.

Rating: ***
Up Next: The Corrections

Book #56: The Drowned and the Saved

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Primo Levi. I spent the whole spring of my senior year picking apart his first memoir, If This Is A Man (American title Survival in Auschwitz), for my senior paper.

I’ll probably give a more in-depth bio of Levi when I review that book, but here’s the short version for context:

Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist. In World War II he joined the Italian resistance movement. He was captured and sent to an internment camp in Fossoli. From there he was sent to Auschwitz in 1942. He survived there until the camp was liberated in 1945.

The Drowned and the Saved is much different from If This Is A ManIf This Is A Man was Levi’s first book, and he wrote it in the first few years after he’d left Auschwitz. At that point, he would have been focusing more on writing what happened and getting the memories on paper and trying to make sense of what happened. It’s very disjointed, and you get the sense that Levi just wants to get the book out of him. It’s beautiful and there are some good reflections, but at its core, If This Is A Man is more musings than analysis.

By the time Levi wrote The Drowned and the Saved, he’d had time to process Auschwitz a little more. This, I think, is why it’s so much more philosophical and so much less of a memoir. In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi mostly talks about  trauma and how we think about things that have happened to us. He talks about the different ways people survive trauma, and how survivors of trauma both remember and deal with what happened to them.

In this way, The Drowned and the Saved is much more a meditation on memories and how we remember them than a recounting of Levi’s memories. This was interesting. Anyone studying Holocaust memoirs in any depth at all will quickly come up against this question of memory and trauma. What does trauma do to our memories? How do we make sense of a traumatic event after it happens (because really, we can’t understand traumatic things as they’re happening; only in the aftermath)? How accurate are our memories of these things and what purpose do they serve?

These questions apply not only to Holocaust literature, but also to everyday life. It’s an interesting and disconcerting thing to think about memory, and Levi addresses this topic, through the filter of perhaps one of the most traumatic events in history, very adeptly.

Rating: *****

Up Next: Great Expectations 

Book #44: In Cold Blood

I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in less than 2 days. It was that good.

It’s one of the first non-fiction “novels” I’ve ever read. And it’s fantastic. Basically, Capote recounts the murder of the Clutter family and the pursuit and trial of the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The first part of the book leads up to the murder. Capote recounts the Clutters’ last day alive. The father takes out a life insurance policy , the daughter helps a young neighbor bake a pie and sees her boyfriend, the son helps the gardner with a chore, and the sick mother convalesces. In this part, Capote also recounts what Hickock and Smith were doing before the murder. For the rest of the book, time is split between the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI), the killers, and, ultimately, the prosecutors. The fact that these people were all real can sometimes be forgotten in this book, because Capote so skillfully takes readers in and out of their thoughts. It doesn’t feel like a non-fiction book at all.

I’m interested in creative non-fiction as a genre, so it was super interesting to see how Capote handled putting the information into the narrative. One of the things I thought was so interesting was how Capote dealt with the murder itself. Although the narrative leading up to the event is linear and split between the murderers and the murdered, he skips over the actual murder and picks up with the bodies being discovered and Smith and Hickock heading to Mexico. He doesn’t reveal how exactly the murders were done until he gets to the part where Hickock and Smith are caught and confess to the crime.

I thought this was a really interesting way of doing it. In writing about true events that have already happened, it’s so easy to just focus on the event the way it happened without a thought of adding any suspense. But with a story like this, where cold-blooded killers are on the run and a whole family has been murdered, suspense makes it so much better. I’m so pleased Capote thought to do it that way.

Even though the facts of the story might not be QUITE as accurate as Capote claims, he still did non-fiction really uniquely and creatively.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Bossypants

I want Tina Fey to be my new best friend. In some weird, strange way, I feel like she is my new best friend, actually.

For my “break” book, I read her new memoir Bossypants. It was really good. I was laughing and nodding and engaged from page one.

Fey writes both about her career – from beginning as an improv actor for The Second City to 30 Rock – with eloquence, humor, and heart. She doesn’t stray from awkward comparisons – she compares something to being about as gross and uncomfortable as losing your tampon string (and then apologizes to any male readers for their not being able to relate) – or brutal honesty.

She even fits a bit of feminism into her book. She makes plenty of comments about women in positions of power in the workplace, and also about male casting producers and writing who feel like two women in one sketch will never be funny. Normally I’m not huge on reading “feminist” literature or writings that focus on how women need more power. It’s not that I don’t think that women should be equal to men or anything (obviously), it’s just that that sort of thing usually doesn’t interest me or sit well with me for some reason.

But this time, it didn’t bother me at all. Maybe it was because it didn’t feel like Fey was asking me to burn my bra or protest against men in control or anything. She just kind of says it like it is and leaves me to draw my own conclusions.

Anyway, Bossypants had me laughing and smiling and feeling really happy all the way through. I like it when books make me do that.

Everyone should read it, because Tina Fey is awesome.

Rating: *****


Also, since I finished another ten list-books, I’ve chosen my favorite out of the set. It was kind of a rough group. None of them were really SUPER outstanding, but I enjoyed most of them. Ultimately, though, I’ve decided on The Hobbit.  Maybe it was Prague or maybe the fact that I had to read so much Gothic or Victorian this round, but I was glad for a little magic and fantasy.

The Backerei Woman

I didn’t like Out of Africa. I’m sorry, I just didn’t. Yes, Dinesen does descriptions of land and scenery beautifully. Yes, she is very good at bringing the land she loves to life. Yes, she did make everything seem mythic and even sometimes mystical.

What she didn’t do is make me care. For some reason I couldn’t connect with the narrative. It was weird. I kept trying to come closer and get into the story, but something stopped me from really getting into the text and connecting with Dinesen.

I did, however, like the fourth section, The Immigrant’s Notebook. It was a compilation of little scenes and stories about things or people Dinesen encountered. I was inspired enough to write my own about Germany. This is my favorite one:

The Backerei Woman

Blonde haired woman

Every morning my housemate and I rode the bus to Am Sande, the center of Lüneburg, and got breakfast at a bakery. I got to know one of the women who worked there very well. She was in her late thirties, possibly early forties, with strawlike blonde hair. On busy mornings she bustled around behind the counter, putting new pastries behind the glass case, punching the dysfunctional espresso machine with a lot of muttered Achs and Schades, and bantering with the ‘usuals.’

In the beginning, we stumbled through early exchanges with pointing and pantomiming.

“Morgen!”

“…morgen…”

“Kann ich Ihnen helfen?” Can I help you?

Milchkaffee“…ummm…ja. Ich….eine Kaffee. Und…das…” (vague gesture to a pastry that looked good) “Und…wir…nicht hier essen.”  Ummm…Yes. I…coffee. And…the… (gesture) And..we…not eat here.

Eventually she started using her limited English (which was about as good as my German). We started to trade languages. Every morning for five minutes we would talk. She in her broken English and me in my beginners’ German.

“It RAINS today. Rain! Regnet! I learned RAIN!

“Ja! Heute es regnet,” I would agree. Since it rains nearly every day in Lüneburg, we got very good at talking about the rain.

I would proudly find an excuse to show off my improving German.

“Gestern BIN ich ZU Hamburg gefahen! Ich BIN gefahren!! Yesterday I went to Hamburg. (With extra excitement about choosing the correct modal verb)

By July, it would be like this:

HER: Hello! Hi!
ME: Hallo! Wie geht es Ihnen? Hi, how are you?
HER: I am good. I practice lots of English! Listen: Today it is SUNNY. Tomorrow it WILL rain!
ME: Ja! Es ist sehr schön. Aber morgen würde es regen. Futur! Ich lerne mehr immer Deutsch! Yeah. It’s very nice. But tomorrow it would rain. Future tense! I learn more always German!
HER: Sehr good. Very nice! Almost right. What today?  Käse Brötchen
ME: Ummm…ich möchte…diese.  Ummm…I would like…these.
HER: No. You must speak.
ME: Eine käse brötchen. Meine Lieblints…dinge. A cheesy bun. My favorite…thing.
HER: Sehr gut. Very nice. Und..And…coffee. Mit…with…zwei…two….ehmmmmmm Zucker….Zucker…Schade.
ME: Genau. Zucker…Auf Englisch sugar.
HER: Ja! Sugar. Eine Milchskaffee mit zwei  Zucker! Yeah! A milk coffee with two sugars!

It seems that even in foreign countries, I can become such a regular that baristas know my order. My mornings in the bakery trading languages with a German woman are some of my fondest memories of Germany.

Rating: **
Up Next: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Rameau’s Nephew. 

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