Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

“From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail”

Genre: Memoir, Travelogue, Bereavement Help

Similar to: A mix of Eat, Pray, Love and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Could be enjoyed by: I think people experiencing bereavement could find it helpful

Publication date: 20th March 2012

If you asked me to sum up Wild in one sentence it would be “a woman goes for a very long walk wearing incorrect footwear”. I really did find it that dull as it felt like the book plodded along at a snail’s pace. It’s a shame because I expected far better things from the novel, especially after reading all of the rave reviews. My overarching feeling was “meh”.

To expand on that one sentence description of the book, Cheryl Strayed is a young American woman whose life has been seriously derailed by the death of her mother and the subsequent break up of her marriage. After quitting University in her final term to help with her mother’s end of life care, Cheryl struggles to cope and a series of bad decisions leads to her decision to do something drastic – spending a few months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail completely solo. She has to carry all of her food, water and belongings on her back and camp each night out in the open. It’s an incredibly brave decision to make but ultimately I just didn’t find it that engaging.

Now, before you all jump into the comments section and call me a monster for trashing a book about a young woman who has just watched her mother die, I’m not saying that the book wasn’t emotional. On the contrary, it was harrowingly, viscerally grief ridden – to the point where I struggled to read some of the parts about Cheryl’s Mum’s last few days. It was just…depressing. Obviously, death is an incredibly upsetting topic but I wanted more of a redemptive arc – a sense of letting go of the grief and moving forwards but instead this is how the book went: 

walking, shoe problems, flashback: traumatic illness 

walking, bag too heavy, flashback: traumatic childhood

walking, hungry, flashback: harrowing death

walking, got lost, flashback: drug problems

walking, more shoe problems, flashback: divorce

walking, cold and wet, flashback: family drifts apart

walking, finally some sex, flashback: traumatic horse death

walking, money problems, flashback: more traumatic childhood

walking, anger 

The End.

I had complicated emotions about Cheryl. On the one hand I felt incredibly sorry for her as she seemed to be totally adrift in her life. Her Dad was abusive, her stepdad disinterested, her brother and sister were distant after the death of her mother. But whilst that provided a background for some of the situations that Cheryl got herself into, I did feel like some of her problems were entirely her own fault. Some of the things she had done to other people, whilst clearly a reflection of her own lack of self esteem/depression, were downright shitty. I felt bad that no-one had tried to help her but then would you help your wife if she’d cheated on you multiple times? 

Probably not.

On the plus side, although Cheryl was woefully inexperienced and naive (she doesn’t test the weight of her pack until the day she begins walking and finds she can’t lift it; she doesn’t have enough money; she doesn’t read the guidebook; she has the wrong size shoes) she perseveres and muddles through. In that way I had a lot of respect for her but I did find her lack of preparation infuriating. I mean, people die every year doing that hike. You’d have thought she’d at least have done a few overnight camping trips beforehand. Or, you know, checked she could pick up the bag that she’s be hauling round for the next few months (let along carry the bloody thing).

The journey itself is pretty epic and I will grudgingly admit that Cheryl’s tenacity and no-nonsense attitude was inspiring. I felt like her decision to  hike the Pacific Crest Trail was her attempt to come to terms with everything and although this was a book about “finding yourself” it managed to do so in a way that wasn’t too self indulgent. Unfortunately, this meant pages and pages of just…walking. Lots of flowery descriptions, lots of info dumps, quite a few transitory characters who were so briefly in and out of the story that I couldn’t remember who any of them were when they popped up later on – and it was all interspersed with the depressing details of Cheryl’s life. Then there was a rushed ending where she reached the finish point…and that was it.

Sadly, Wild just wasn’t the book for me – although I’m well aware that my views are seriously in the minority. I thought that the novel literally plodded along and although it was genuinely inspiring I also found it pretty depressing – and I hate to say it but also pretty boring. Imagine Lord of the Rings without any magic. 

Yeah.

Rating: Two and a half “why the hell didn’t you read the guidebook?!?” out of five.

As inspiring as it is infuriating, I found Wild a real slog to get through. Everyone else seems to love it but I can’t for the life of me see why.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #13 Read an Oprah book club selection.

Review: Girl With Dove by Sally Bayley

​​”A Life Built by Books”

Genre: Autobiography, Memoir

Similar to: A less extreme version of anything by William S.Burroughs

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Victorian literature

Publication date: 17th May 2018

You know when a book is trying too hard to be clever and innovative? Yeah. That’s exactly how I found Girl With Dove. I’m sure lots of people will praise the novel for it’s highly original style, but it just wasn’t for me. Frankly I found the whole thing confusing.

Girl With Dove is the autobiographical (I think – it’s hard to tell) novel of Sally Bayley’s childhood. She seemed to grow up in some kind of large extended family home/commune (again, hard to tell) with some pretty disinterested/depressed adults and (possibly) quite a lot of siblings, although they’re not really mentioned. She seeks refuge from the chaos at home in literature, specifically Agatha Christie, Bronte and Dickins and uses characters from these works to explore what is going on around her. 

The short version of this explanation is – I don’t really know what this book is about. When I say that Sally Bayley uses fictional characters to explore her life, she quite literally quotes them, daydreams about them and uses them as a kind of shield to view her life from a safer distance. As you can imagine, this gets incredibly complicated. It doesn’t help that there aren’t that many big events that occur for the first 75% of the book, so it’s hard to work out the timeline and to separate fact from fiction (literally). It sounds like an upsetting story of neglect, but so many of the details are lost through the odd narrative style that I don’t really know what to think.

It’s interesting that Sally Bayley chooses three female characters from literature to help her to try to make sense of her life. She relies on Miss Marple, Jane Eyre and Betsey Trotwood – three strong, sensible, stable  women who act as a weird kind of moral compass. I would guess that these characters appealed to her because she so obviously was missing a decent female role model (and also a decent male role model, but growing up in a house with no adult males this may not have even occurred to her). Unfortunately, filtering your life through fictional characters made me feel very removed from the storyline so I really struggled to emotionally connect with the book. 

It didn’t help that I’m not familiar with any of the characters that she chose to feature so heavily in the story. Perhaps if I had been I would have found the novel easier to read, but without that knowledge I frequently found myself flicking backwards and forwards, trying to work out what on earth was going on (not easy on a Kindle).

I don’t doubt that Sally Bayley has fantastic literary skilks, but unfortunately the narrative was so fractured that I feel like she tried a little bit too hard to be innovative and ended up with a confusing mess. I’m going to guess that the jilted narrative flow was done on purpose to reflect the turbulent childhood that she experienced, but I needed at least a few clearly defined events to hang the rest of the story from. I think that in the last quarter of the book, the storyline does become clearer and I enjoyed that far more than the preceding three quarters, but it just wasn’t enough. 

Overall, I loved the idea of using books as an escape from real life (who hasn’t done that?) but I hated the execution. I read a book years ago called “A Fucked Up Life in Books” which used the same idea but in my opinion did it far, far better. As I said before, some people will love Girl With Dove, but it just wasn’t for me.

Rating: Two WTF’s out of five.

Confusing, difficult and overly ambitious, Girl With Dove makes literally no sense. I don’t even know what the title refers to. Best avoided, in my opinion.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

 

Review: Toast by Nigel Slater

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I’ve always disliked Nigel Slater. I’m not sure exactly why but I thought he was a bit, well, patronising. I think it’s partly the way he speaks and partly his terrible TV show. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Slater presents “Simple Suppers”, a televisual concept so pretentious that when I first saw it I thought it was satire. Imagine the most middle class show kitchen ever. All the flour is decanted into mason jars, the butter is wrapped in brown paper and string, everything is painted in Farrow and Ball’s Elephants Breath. In between VT of Slater making balsamic reductions and char grilling asparagus are graphics of a little handwritten notebook with cute drawings of leaves and things with fake post it notes saying “don’t forget to cook a bit extra for tomorrow’s supper – even better the next day!” There’s something about this that really grates on me. No one lives like that. It’s all so fake but he presents with such seriousness – then you realise all he’s done is made an omelette with a few extra herbs that you could knock up in your sleep. Blaargh.

So you could say I had pretty low expectations of Toast – Slaters memoirs of his childhood to the age of 18. But boy, was I wrong.

Unlike other life stories, Toast is written in very short chapters which each centre around a memory of a specific item of food. I know that Slater is a food writer for the Observer so when I began reading this I did wonder if he’d just recycled his newspaper columns. Was I being ripped off?

All I can say is – I very much doubt that the content of Toast would be printed in a national newspaper. I couldn’t believe how candid Slater was. He was so honest about his feelings towards his own family, his early sexual encounters, his loneliness and struggle to make his father proud. He had almost nothing nice to say about his stepmother and didn’t seem to care that (presumably) members of his family would read it it and quite probably be upset.

To say I was shocked by this novel was an understatement. Not only to find out that Slater is from Wolverhampton (I seem to be reading a lot by people from Wolves, but he’s from the posh bit so I can’t relate as much) but to discover that he’s actually really rather sweet and comes across as witty, geeky and utterly oppressed by his family (he must be a therapists dream, there’s literally years worth of issues to work through). I couldn’t believe it – I actually found myself liking Nigel Slater. Weird.

Throughout the book there’s more than a hint of Slater’s bisexual/gay proclivities although he never confirms his sexuality. However, this seems almost irrelevant as its clear that Slater has one great love – food. This book is a love letter to all the cooking he had consumed throughout his formative years and is nowhere near as fancy as you might expect from someone who I always thought was a bit, well, up his own arse. Although towards the end Slater starts to discover decent restaurant food, throughout his childhood he devours his way through the whole repertoire of Marguerite Pattern 70’s style cooking and devotes as much love to a humble slice of toast as to home made lemon meringue pie. I have to add here that I also grew up on Marguerite Pattern’s Perfect Cooking and the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook (written by Bake Off’s finest Mary Berry, no less) and found myself reminiscing right along with him. I inherited Perfect Cooking from my partners mother and still maintain that it’s the best book to use for basic home cooking, although if you try out any of the variations of the blueprint recipes then you’re heading into uncharted territory.

Anyway.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s compelling reading and by linking his memories to specific types of food Slater creates an immediate bond between reader and author – I guess food is a great leveller. I love a bit of nostalgia and Slater’s memories of certain chocolate bars (Cadbury’s Aztec anyone?), dinner party food (I have vivid memories of my mother’s coq au vin and dauphinoise potatoes) and booze (when was the last time anyone had a babycham?) were really evocative of my childhood, despite it taking place almost two decades after his. The short chapters allow Slater to skip all the boring and-then-I-went-to-school-where-nothing-happened bits and just tell anecdote after anecdote, which makes the whole thing far more interesting.

Altogether I thought that Toast was a really interesting read and despite some desperately sad parts a lovely trip down memory lane. I have a new found respect for Nigel Slater – who’d have thought it?

Rating: 8/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge #19 Read a book about food and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #10 Read a book that’s set within 100 miles of your location.

Review: Spectacles by Sue Perkins

I read this book because I bloody love Superkins. I’ve been a fan since the days of Light Lunch. I remember seeing her and Mel mucking around on TV and thinking ‘this is just like me and my best friend’. You could see that warmth that existed between them which in my eyes made them such a great comedy duo.

Naturally, I’m incredibly sad that something as perfect as the  Great British Bake Off in its current format is over. It just won’t be the same without Mel and Sue making soggy bottom puns and giving the bakers a hug when they need it. It’s not often that presenters make such a difference to a show (especially when their role is mainly announcing how much time is left and telling the contestants who is going home/winning Star Baker) but Mel and Sue really added a sense of comedy and fun to what otherwise could have been a fairly boring cookery contest.

Anyway, back to the book… 

You may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this book. Sue is really funny but you get to understand some quite personal, difficult details about her life (bereavement, relationship breakups, a brain tumour, her dad’s cancer). She’s really frank about some of her problems, her family and her relationships although I’m aware of a couple of girlfriends that have been left out, including Rhona Cameron the comedian. She also didn’t talk about how she felt when she was outed in the press, possibly because it involved Rhona. I’ve previously heard Sue say that Rhona refers to her as the love of her life so I would have been interested to read about their relationship in greater detail (or to understand why it wasn’t mentioned).

I was surprised to read that Sue isn’t nearly as confident as she comes across on screen, which is sad because I think she’s great. I’m hopefully going to see her live in March next year and really looking forward to it.

Overall, this book is funny, cleverly written and very engaging. I thought it was a great read.

Rating: 8.5/10