Thursday, June 14, 2012
Books and Life Journeys and Finding Oneself: Oprah's Wild New Book Club Pick
I was so excited when I learned via Twitter that Oprah had restarted her book club. I think that was my first real dive into social media, and I loved taking part in the online discussions of Anna Karenina, As I Lay Dying, East of Eden, and others. I read books I never thought I would read. Oprah helped me appreciate classical literature, and to read many other classics on my own, like The Count of Monte Cristo, A Tale of Two Cities, and Jane Eyre. All of these books are high up on my list of all-time favorites. Sometimes when I'm looking for a new book to read, if it has the "Oprah's Book Club" seal, I choose it just for that reason. Without it I might have never read The Pillars of the Earth or The Poisonwood Bible (by the way, when is that one going to be made into a movie already??) And I dug my copy of Icy Sparks out of a box in my attic the other day, and downloaded Say You're One of Them onto my e-reader. Hopefully I'll read those books this summer.
As soon as I found out about Oprah's re-"kindle"d book club--yes, pun intended, ha ha--I downloaded her latest pick, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, onto my iPad's Kindle App. (And now that I have a brand-new DROID 4G smartphone with a Kindle app included, I can read all my books on that, too. Woot!) When I read the synopsis--Girl Goes on Long Hike on Pacific Crest Trail to Overcome Troubled Past and Tragic Death of her Mother and Emerges as New Woman--I thought, OK, sounds interesting. Kind of like a cross between Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, a riveting and funny memoir of the author's adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail, and Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert's around-the-world quest to "find herself." (Which, by the way, was another Oprah's Book Club selection. Do I sense a theme here?) Reading Wild, I couldn't help but wonder if maybe Cheryl tried a little bit too hard to make it like both of those books, because it kind of was, except not as much fun to read.
I'll give Cheryl credit for doing what she did; I know I never would have been brave enough to set out on a long solo hike like that. She tells us about her childhood; growing up without her father, living in a house with no electricity or running water with a mother who loved her children deeply and a stepfather who cherished them as he would his own children; about getting married too young and cheating on her husband and taking up with a heroin addict, ultimately becoming a user herself and getting pregnant and having an abortion. (What bothered me most about that was not that she aborted her baby, which is tragic enough; she didn't seem to have any second thoughts about it. Even later in the book when she recalls that nine months after her abortion she thought, "Gee, if I didn't have an abortion I'd be having a baby right about now. Isn't that something." I wonder if she ever thinks about that child who is blatantly missing from this story.)
And Cheryl is a talented writer and storyteller, that's for sure. I enjoyed the accounts of her adventures on the trail, the friends she made along the way, and was moved by the tragic stories of her past--her mother's death, her divorce, the early years when her father abused her mother. I found the story of how she and her younger brother made the decision to shoot their old horse that they loved particularly poignant. But is this a book I would read again? Not likely. Despite her brave attempt to inspire us with her own story of Finding Herself, frankly it kind of falls flat. And Cheryl (who I've never met and I'm sure is a very nice person) comes across as kind of selfish. "Yay me! I walked a bajillion miles all by myself! And I met lots of cool people, and I even got laid!! Woo-hoo!" (Oh, and she makes sure she tells us that when she and her siblings were preparing to spread her mother's ashes in a garden they had planted, she took a couple of the bigger chunks and swallowed them. Ohhh, Kaaayyy...)
What I don't understand--in addition to her bizarre compulsion to swallow her mother, ew--is why she needed to hike the Pacific Crest Trail to "find herself." Maybe that's because I never had time to do anything that adventurous, and that I've "found myself" just by living my life. The decisions I've made and the paths I've taken along the way. Earlier in my life I was all gung-ho to join the Peace Corps, and thought that somehow two years of living in a remote village in Africa would be just what I needed to Find Myself. After almost getting in, almost getting sent to someplace in South America (they wanted me to be a teacher trainer. What a joke. I had no teaching experience at the time.), I ran across a couple of brick walls and my application stalled. At which time I met my future husband, and was faced with a choice whether to persevere with this Peace Corps thing or find out where my new relationship with this amazing man was headed. I chose the man. (Later I realized that finding oneself is the wrong reason to join the Peace Corps. It ought to be a selfless act for the good of others. Duh.) I married him, became a Catholic, started my family, et cetera; and here I am. That was all I needed to do to find myself, and do you know what? I'm still Finding Myself. Sure, I've made some mistakes along the way; who hasn't? I'm sure I'll make many more. My journey here won't be over until they put me in the ground.
I enjoyed Wild, and I'm glad I had a chance to read it. Someday perhaps I'll get to hike parts of the Pacific Crest Trail (my husband and my sons walking with me, of course). Yes, I'm looking forward to seeing what Oprah chooses as her next book club selection. And yes, I'll probably read it.