Friday, July 20, 2012

Three books by Cheryl Strayed.

I can't remember the last time I read three books by the same author in a row until last week when I picked up a book by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed has garnered a lot of attention this year for her powerful memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which was picked by Oprah as the first book of her new book club. Wild details an epic solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail that Strayed took when she was in her twenties. Feeling lost and devastated after the death of her mother and the breakup of an early marriage, Strayed sets off on a quest to bring some direction to her life. A novice hiker at best, Strayed starts out on her grueling journey feeling like she has adequately prepared, but it becomes immediately apparent that she has no idea what she is getting into. Along the way she encounters many challenges, some anticipated (wildlife, blisters, loneliness) and some not (record setting snowfalls, lack of water, detours). While the descriptions of the “PCT” and the characters she meets along the trail are fascinating, it is Strayed's ability to emotionally engage the reader that really drew me in. Her writing conveys her grief about her mother and her emotional confusion about her divorce with a searing clarity that made the book hard to put down.

Once I finished Wild, I immediately sought out Strayed's 2006 novel Torch. If you've read Wild, it is immediately apparent that this work of fiction is very autobiographical. It focuses on the family of Teresa Rae Wood, who is only 38 when she is diagnosed with cancer and given only months to live. The story is told alternately from the perspectives of Teresa, her young adult children Claire and Joshua, and her husband Bruce. The family lives in rural Minnesota, where they built their own house in the wilderness and Teresa was the long time host of a radio show called “Modern Pioneers!” that focused on topics related to their rustic lifestyle. After the death of Teresa, each family member confronts their grief in their own way, becoming detached from each other and often from themselves. As in Wild, Torch confronts issues of grief head on and again writes with remarkable honesty and beauty about difficult emotions. While this is a work of fiction, it is dedicated to the author’s mother and is a loving tribute to her memory.

The newest book by Strayed, just published last week, is Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. This volume contains excerpts from a popular advice column that Strayed wrote for the literary website The Rumpus called Dear Sugar. Strayed wrote the column anonymously for several years as Sugar until recently revealing her identity. The format of Dear Sugar is familiar from classic advice columns, where a reader submits a question about relationships or life, but the responses are not like anything you would find in Dear Abby.  Strayed answers tough questions about anything from motherhood to adultery to mental illness in a way that gets right to the heart of the issue, tearing it open and revealing the motivations inside. She reveals a lot about her own personal struggles in helping other people to confront their own. Her responses to even ordinary questions are powerful and compelling, brutally honest yet touching and hopeful.

 In the introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things, writer Steve Almond describes Strayed as writing with “radical empathy”, which perfectly describes Strayed’s approach in all three of these works. Whether the format is memoir, fiction, or an advice column, her writing resonates with an emotional truth that really spoke to me.
Check one of these titles out from us here at The Urbana Free Library and let me know what you think!

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