Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild, Cheryl Strayed's account of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, is the book equivalent of squeezing the juice out of a blister. It's both satisfying and viscerally disgusting. Her journey along the trail--a chronicle of aches and pains, foolish mistakes and leaps of faith--is the means by which she sweats out the poison of grief, regret, and self-destructive recklessness. And she doesn't spare us the details. At first, during the early chapters, Wild made me so angry. Strayed starts this 1,100 mile journey without ever having backpacked before. Without  packing her supplies into her pack to see if they'll fit, or testing the weight on her back even once. She starts in the Mojave Desert, in summer, without enough water. This made me furious; my perennial refrain, as I listened, was: You are lucky to be alive.

A personal aside: I went on my first backpacking trip when I was 2. A 20 mile trip through the Sierra Nevadas out of Tuolumne Meadows. We backpacked yearly all through my childhood. I have known the things that Cheryl Strayed discovers by trial and error--mostly error, mostly painful--for as long as I can remember. That was often the source of my frustration with the book, but also my delight. Along the way, as Strayed gains competence and trail savvy, she articulates things that I've taken for granted, has moments of realization that made me remember everything I love about the wilderness, despite and sometimes because of all the misery.

Here's an example:

"Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren't things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one." (Wild, 191)

It's the last line, especially, that got me: I was humble before each and every one. Yes.

While Strayed bumbles about the wilderness risking her life, she tells us all the other ways that she's screwed up. She is brutal with herself. Sometimes, like when she talks about getting a divorce or using heroin, she's looking squarely at major events, Disasters with a capital D, and admitting her responsibility. Sometimes, like when she spends an evening with a vacationing family and fantasizes about being adopted by the parents, she is shining a light on thoughts that are so tender and shameful they are excruciating to speak aloud, excruciating to hear.

And that's how she got me on her side. She doesn't spare herself. She puts it all out there, and while she is cruel to herself, she is kind to others. To the people she meets along the trail, so that each chance encounter with a stranger seems almost magical in the telling. To the people in her life--she makes the husband she divorces sound like a prince, her mother a mythic heroine. Wild is a sort of eulogy to both, and it is a loving one.

So Strayed has a rough time on the trail, but she perseveres. She wants to give up. She obsesses about giving up. But she doesn't give up. And when she finally starts to conquer the trail, it feels earned. It's some of the most satisfying payoff I've ever encountered in a book.

There's a moment, when Strayed is trying to communicate across a great distance with a handful of skiiers and she keeps shouting, "Where are we?", again and again until the skiiers can understand. Then the skiiers shout back, "Are you lost?" and Strayed screams, "No!" -- I felt such triumph and joy, I wished I could have been there to whoop and holler and cheer for her.

She doesn't reach the end of her trip and find out everything's fixed. It's not. But the poison is gone. I cried as the narrator read the final words--kind of hard, actually--the way I'd cried two or three times while I listened. It's a textbook Oprah pick, in that sense: an absolute tear-jerker. But it also filled me with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm. I read Wild because several people had recommended it to me, but also to prepare for a trip I'm taking at the end of the month. It got me in the exact right headspace: ready for anything, open and eager.

And it really, really made me want to undertake an epic hike. What an experience. So--definitely recommended. Read it, and be prepared to feel inspired by the end.

One last favorite quote:

"The universe, I'd learned, was never, ever kidding. It would take whatever it wanted and it would never give it back." (Wild, 209)

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Fork in the Road

I started reviewing on Amazon in 2006. At first, I wrote reviews to stop myself from buying the same book more than once, which I did a couple of times. Very frustrating. But engaging with reviews slowly but surely changed the way that I browsed and made purchases. In the bad old days, I'd go to a bookstore. I'd select from what was available. I read a lot of books that didn't suit me at all, because that was the only way to sort the wheat from the chaff. When I stumbled across an author I loved, I clung to her with a loyalty born out of desperation.

The next stage was to check the reviews of a book before I bought it. "This sure looks interesting," I'd think to myself. "What do the reviews say?" But the book--title or author--still came first. I didn't have any romance reading friends, so no word of mouth. My discovery process was determined entirely by what books Amazon or my local bookstore chose to feature.

Soon enough, I'd taken a different tack entirely. I'd search for a book I loved on Amazon and scroll through the reviews looking for other reviewers who'd felt the same way. Whose enthusiasm harmonized with mine. Then I'd click through to the reviewer's backlog of reviews and browse until something new and unfamiliar caught my fancy.

I'd buy the book and read it. If I liked it, I'd return to the reviewer's backlog of reviews and hunt through them again. I'd make more purchases, until I'd exhausted the supply or until I discovered that our tastes weren't as similar as I had originally thought.

By 2009/2010, this was my primary method of discovering new books. I didn't cling quite so desperately to those autobuy authors anymore--I was having much, much better luck finding new-to-me books and authors that I liked, and reading fewer duds. So more books, and an overall higher percentage of satisfaction.

What a revelation. You know that almost every really prodigious reader has at least one hidden treasure that they cherish and recommend with special enthusiasm? And that once you've discovered half-a-dozen reviewers whose tastes are sympathetic to your own, that means half-a-dozen hidden treasures? I was so much more willing to experiment than I ever had been before, because it was working out really well for me.

So I wrote reviews, and some of them were negative. Around the same time, I was also starting to write seriously--to think about getting published--and reviewing honed my craft. Articulating what worked for me, what didn't work for me, was a good habit.

But I'm still not published, and the prospect was even more distant back then. Mostly, I wrote--and valued--negative reviews because I had begun to browse so differently. I wasn't browsing from book to book anymore. I was browsing from reviewer to reviewer. My goal was to find a good taste match, and I offered up my own honest opinion for other readers on the same hunt.

I had stopped thinking, "Is this book good or bad?" and started thinking, "Is this book for me?"--the same way I might think, "I prefer white chocolate to milk chocolate," or "I would rather go to a Belle & Sebastian concert than a Dropkick Murphys concert."

I think part of the reason why people react badly to negative reviews is because they still browse vertically, from book to book, rather than horizontally, from reviewer to reviewer--they see a judgment, not a key. In some ways, reviews are like dog whistles; tuned so that only certain people can hear them.

I joined Goodreads in 2011 and I loved it because it facilitated the kind of discovery that worked so well for me. Unlike on Amazon, where I'd have to remember, "Oh, so-and-so wrote a review of X, which only has two or three reviews, so it'll be easy to find her profile again if I search for X..." (I did that a lot), I could make friends, I could follow people, I had a whole timeline that was full of information about what they were reading...what bliss.

So I loved Goodreads. I was a heavy user. But while I sank roots into the site, I also picked a pen name, built a website, and joined Twitter. I started to exist, publicly, as an aspiring author.

There are a couple of things I want to communicate with this post. One is the way that I used reviews. The way I gravitated towards reviewers, how the net effect has been to make me more open and experimental, more aware of my own tastes and better able to supply them.

But the other thing is this conflict. That over the past year or so, with one author/reviewer scandal after another reverberating around the internet, I realized that I couldn't keep one foot on either side of the growing divide.

I knew that some of the people I interacted with as an author would feel betrayed by my reviewer activity. I knew that some of the people I interacted with as a reviewer would feel betrayed by my author activity. Because I'd written a harsh review, because I might have ulterior motives when writing a review. So I knew I'd have to pick. I knew which I'd pick. But I hung about at the crossroads, putting it off for as long as possible.

Goodreads' recent change of policy gave me the kick in the pants that I needed. For an overview of what I mean, I recommend the Soapboxing posts on the subject (By the Numbers: An Analysis of the Reviews Deleted in the Goodreads Policy ChangeGiving Offense: Full Revolt on Goodreads, and The Last Twenty Four Hours on Goodreads), though others have addressed the issue brilliantly.

In short, it is now Goodreads' policy to delete reviews that address author behavior. And I think that's terrible.

I'm an author. Aspiring, yes, but I've finished three books and a handful of novellas and short stories and, so, I'm owning it. Author. But two weeks ago--before (spoiler alert!) I started deleting all my negative reviews--I had 500+ reviews under my belt. And I am 100% pro-reviewer.

Pro a reviewer's right to review however she wants. Readers decide what they care about. What draws them to a book, what pushes them away from one. If a reviewer is mean or gushy, rational or emotional--well, that's her business, her conversation, her way of reaching out to other reviewers. Her dog whistle, that plays a note only some people will hear and respond to.

So, yes, I think it's valid to make choices based on author behavior. Yes, I believe that communicating about problematic behavior is important. And no, I won't contribute content to a site that has decided to stifle those conversations.

I deleted all my reviews. Every last one. Goodreads will no longer profit from my content.

Once I decided to leave Goodreads, the next step was obvious--if painful. I decided to kill my reviewer identity. I deleted all the 1-3 star reviews I'd written of genre books on Amazon and rechristened my newly-sanitized profile with my pen name. I left all my reviews of non-fiction and literary fiction, so it's not all rainbows on roses. But romance, fantasy, paranormal, a newbie author, I'm going to aim for decorum. Only the four and five stars are left.

That's the fork in the road. My goal is to fit into a community of authors, to be a good colleague. I'm sad--gutted, really--about giving up a piece of myself, something that I loved and found really rewarding. But, as so often in life, you can't have it all.

Whatever happens in future, it'll happen as me. Erin Satie, an author who also writes reviews. I'll keep posting reviews on my website (I put three up this week!), and I promise that I'll only ever recommend books that I have actually read, cover to cover, and sincerely enjoyed.

Oh, and I joined Booklikes. I still don't really understand how it works, but you should totally friend me.


Review: Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

I thought this was such a marvelous book. I'd recommend it wholeheartedly, except that I recognize two things: Empress Dowager Cixi was clearly written for an audience as clueless about 19th century Chinese history as myself, and was just as clearly attempting to counter a common narrative about Cixi, about which I was entirely ignorant. My feeling is that Empress Dowager Cixi is a great book; my worry is that I've been drafted as an unknowing foot-soldier in an academic battle I'm unable to evaluate properly. But first, oh man. I had no idea that China had been ruled by a woman for the latter half of the 19th century, and the story of her rise--even more, of her rule--is incredible. Surprising, inspiring, impressive...also sad, at times.

If I'd thought for very long before requesting the book I might have put two and two together, but this is not a cheerful period in Chinese history. If Cixi accomplished anything, it was a form of emergency triage--she arrived at the Forbidden City in 1852, during a period when China's isolationism had left it vulnerable to European powers with imperial ambitions. China, and Cixi when she held power, struggled to catch up, struggled to remain independent, struggled against the erosion of her borders as foreigners nibbled away at ports and peninsulas.

But China didn't fall. It never became a puppet. Despite military incursions by Britain, Germany, France and Japan, despite the fact that China lost most of the wars it fought during this time, the country survived. And, the author of Empress Dowager Cixi argues, much of the credit for China's survival, and for the positive changes made in the country during this time, should be credited to Cixi.

Of course, those changes are themselves depressing. Cixi's triumphs include things like building railroads and telegraph lines, founding Western-style universities, fostering a free press, sending ambassadors abroad. A lot of these changes amount to: admitting that the old ways are wrong and aping the West. It's hard to argue against the necessity of modernization, but equally hard to deny the loss of pride and identity that went along with it.

So this was a rough period for a great empire. And Cixi's greatness--the book convinced me of it; she was clever, determined, far-sighted, reasonable, hard-working, fierce--has been stuck under the shadow of hard times. But she executed some truly astonishing political maneuvers, and if you appreciate savagely intricate court politics, this book is worth reading on that count alone.

For example--this is my favorite, it made me gasp aloud as I read--Cixi had a nemesis. A man, Prince Chun, who opposed her policies, particularly her interest in the West, and expressed his displeasure at one point by arranging to have Cixi's dearest friend executed. A pretty strong warning, you might say.

But Cixi won the day.

How? After her own son, the Emperor, died, Cixi had to name a new heir. She picked Chun's only son. The three-year-old boy was taken from his home to be raised by Cixi. Neither Chun nor the boy's mother had further access to the boy. What's more, Chun couldn't protest--Cixi had paid him a great compliment, hadn't she? And he also had to withdraw from politics (a son must be obedient to a father, but an Emperor cannot be obedient to anyone, so the father couldn't disrupt the court with his presence), thus clearing the way for Cixi to rule unimpeded.

Vicious, right? Vicious, bloodless, brilliant. This woman could scheme.

But Cixi's loyalty and friendship was just as remarkable. For example--Cixi had been a concubine of fairly low standing before she bore her husband his first and only son. She wasn't very popular with the Emperor, and she wasn't officially the mother of her own child. The Emperor's wife, Zhen, was.

You'd think that Cixi and Zhen would be at one another's throats, wouldn't you? I expected a rivalry, a catfight, maybe some poison. No. Not at all. Cixi and Zhen were friends and allies. They executed the coup that first brought Cixi to power, as Regent until her son came of age, together, and ruled in tandem until Zhen's death. They made a great team, stronger together than apart.

If there's one thing I love more than the story of a woman triumphing over all the odds and gaining power, it's the story of a pair of good friends who triumph over all the odds and gain power.

There were other aspects of Cixi's biography that surprised me. How willingly and completely she withdrew from the throne when her son came of age. The second time around--after her son died, and the little heir she'd stolen from Chun came of age--things didn't go nearly so well. But that first time, after ruling for ten years, after discovering that she liked having power and had even grown popular, she gave it all up.

Empress Dowager Cixi is beautifully written. I started the book with no background knowledge at all, but I followed along easily. Chang fills in details and supplies background as needed, and has the gift of being comprehensive without becoming condescending. She paints a vivid picture of everything from the dust in the roads to the jeweled finger-protectors that Cixi wore.

That being said, it became increasingly clear as I read that Chang was attempting a rehabilitation. Apparently Cixi has been either dismissed or vilified by most historians, her accomplishments attributed to her male courtiers, her cruelties highlighted and exaggerated. Chang struck me as careful and thorough, but also very partial. And I'm in no position to judge.

Except that it was such a good, satisfying read. That I'm sure about.

Note: I received this book from Amazon Vine in exchange for an honest review.


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Review: The Statues That Walked

I'm getting ready to leave for Chile at the end of November & one way that I'm preparing, extending and enriching the travel experience, is by reading about the places that I'm going to visit. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island by Terry Hunt and Carl Lipois exactly the sort of history I wanted--clear and comprehensive. The great thing about The Statues that Walked is that it describes the contemporary understanding of Easter Island but also chronicles all the misconceptions that have flourished over the years. So, for example, it starts by describing how very barren the island is. It's small, windy, treeless, with poor soil and irregular--often scanty--rains. The surrounding ocean doesn't have much to offer in the way of seafood, and the nearest inhabited island is over 1,000 miles away.

Once the authors have given the lay of the land, they discuss how various scholars have explained the island's current landscape. For years, the prevailing theory was 'ecocide'--archeological digs show that, long ago, a palm forest grew on Easter Island. The palms disappeared soon after the first human settlers arrived & the initial assumption was that the islanders cut down all the trees in order to make rollers so they could tow their huge, multi-ton statues into place.

In fact, the authors finally reveal, the human settlers weren't at fault. Not directly, anyhow. They'd arrived with rats in their cargo. The rats feasted on the palm nuts. Multiplied, feasted more, until all the palm nuts were gone. The living palms died, none grew to replace them, and soon the island was treeless.

A lot of  early assumptions about Easter Island heaped blame on the islanders, for one thing or another. For ruining the environment, for being too stupid/lazy/backwards to plant crops. Some early travelers tried to 'help' the islanders by giving them livestock or seeds. But Easter Island isn't fertile enough for most crops to grow, or  to support livestock. In fact, the authors point out again and again, the islanders had done the best they could with the resources available.

Meanwhile, the Age of Exploration devastated the island. This part of the story was depressingly familiar. Sailors brought disease. The islanders died, the population crashed. Eventually, the early explorers gave way to whalers and predators. Islanders were kidnapped and forced into slavery, then kidnapped and forced into indenture. Those left on the island were swindled, the stolen land converted into a sheep ranch--by that time, disease and raiding had cut the population of almost 3,000 down to around 100--and the islanders were forced to live inside a high wall while the sheep roamed free.

The ending would be hunky dory, with the islanders staging a revolt, reclaiming their land, appointing a local as governor, obtaining Chilean citizenship, and growing a thriving tourism industry, but, of course, it's not. More tourists visit the island every year than the island can properly support. There isn't enough water, the landfill is bursting at the seams, the planes can't fly in food fast enough.

I haven't mentioned the statues yet, but the authors go into a satisfying amount of detail describing how the Mo'ai were made and transported. Again, they start with all the theories that didn't work: Easter Island didn't have a large enough population, or the necessary natural resources, to allow huge teams of laborers to tow the statues along horizontally, for example. Rather, small teams would have walked them upright using the 'refrigerator method' and a few ropes.

The quarry from which the statues were mined is extant--with half-carved faces emerging from the rock!--and mo'ai that fell during transport reveal how the statues were carved with a high center of mass to make moving them easier, then re-shaped on their platforms for stability.

I just loved The Statues that Walked. I listened to it as an audiobook & the narrator was really great. It's not very long--six hours to listen, which is nothing--measured and thoughtful. This is probably a niche read, but if you're at all curious about Easter Island, I recommend it.

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Review: Nixonland by Rick Perlstein

Just finished my most recent audiobook, Nixonland by Rick Perlstein. It's hard to review because I did not enjoy the actual listening experience--like, at all--but, having finished it, I'm satisfied and feel like I learned a lot. Part of my frustration comes, I think, from poor choices in the book's structure. It starts out narrowly focused on Nixon's personal biography and rushes through the first fifty-odd years of his life. I wanted a broader context and more detail, especially after he first entered politics. I kept hearing names that never stuck, references to events I understood only vaguely, and I felt like I was trying to climb up a waterfall, with so much information rushing out at me and nothing to hold onto.

Really, for the first two hundred pages or so, I hated Nixonland.

But once Perlstein has reached the 1968 presidential campaign, he takes a deep breath. He widens his focus to include popular movements, public figures, other branches of government, major events (most of them tragic--good lord, why did I ever think it would have been fun or romantic to be alive in 1968? What a terrible year), and goes into much more detail. The book opens up; all of a sudden it's about the whole country, not just one man. A much more satisfying experience.

In retrospect, it's clear that Nixonland is really about Nixon's first term in office. Everything before the '68 election is rushed, and the book is almost excruciatingly thorough until it ends at Nixon's re-election in 1972. The end was unpleasantly abrupt, even though it's an 800 page behemoth and I wasn't craving more time with it.

Partly because of the audiobook narrator, Stephen R. Thorne. His voice was perfectly suited to the text--harsh, disgruntled, hectoring. He read every line as though he were mumbling an insult about you from three feet away & made a chronicle of ugly events that much more repulsive.

But I was eager to read Nixonland because I've never understood even the biggest scandals from his presidency--not Vietnam, not Watergate. I had not realized (this is a sentence full of my total ignorance, which I offer up as penance) that JFK's brother Robert Kennedy had been assassinated while running against Nixon in '68, or that Nixon had been a two-term Vice President before he was elected President. I mean, it's staggering how much I did not know.

So Nixonland filled in a lot of gaps.

Perlstein describes Nixon as a pure politician. A brilliant and brutal strategist who cared more about winning than about any of the issues of the day. Whose ability to win, in fact, depended on his ability to set aside (or sell out) all moral qualms.

Perlstein paints him as driven by resentment, grudging and competitive. He ascribes to Nixon two kinds of political genius: an ability to harness the resentments of people who feel inferior or hard done by, and an ability to triumph by sowing division in the field around him. He traces these innovations back to Nixon's time in college, when his resentment against an elite literary club, the Franklin Society, led him to found a club of his own--the Orthogonians. As a conceit, I found this both illuminating and flattening, reducing most of his adult decisions to a schoolyard mentality. On the other hand, many of Nixon's political opponents--JFK, Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney--were  exactly the 'Franklin' type: handsome, noble, likable...and filthy, stinking rich. (So, you know, everything Nixon was not).

There's a bit at the end, when Perlstein quotes Bob Dole's speech at Nixon's funeral, something about how eventually we'll recognize that Nixon defined American politics in the latter half of the twentieth century. And Perlstein says: Dole is right, but not in the way he thinks. His vision of 'Nixonland' is a country divided, wedged into enemy factions, with corruption filling the gap. The contemporary resonance  is strong. Depressingly strong. The politics of division has, as I'm writing this, ground the government to a halt.

Some history books gloss over a lot but still feel complete. They give the impression of having covered all the important stuff, and leave you free to move on. Nixonland isn't like that. Even where it's most thorough, about protest movements or campaigns, the profusion of detail reveals the presence of missing threads. I think it would be easy to use this book as a jumping off point--when I heard an Economist podcast today about a new book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass, I thought: oh, man, I could keep going. On and on, until I've drowned in a whole library of material.

And still never really understand.

Liz over at My Extensive Reading recommended this one to me. I'm tempted to recommend this on to others but...I dunno. Maybe? If you feel like wallowing in sour milk for 40-50 hours.