Unsentimental memoir of the author’s three-month solo hike from California to Washington along the Pacific Crest Trail.
Following the death of her mother, Strayed’s (Torch, 2006) life quickly disintegrated. Family ties melted away; she divorced her husband and slipped into drug use. For the next four years, life was a series of disappointments. “I was crying over all of it,” she writes, “over the sick mire I’d made of my life since my mother died; over the stupid existence that had become my own. I was not meant to be this way, to live this way, to fail so darkly.” While waiting in line at an outdoors store, Strayed read the back cover of a book about the Pacific Crest Trail. Initially, the idea of hiking the trail became a vague apparition, then a goal. Woefully underprepared for the wilderness, out of shape and carrying a ridiculously overweight pack, the author set out from the small California town of Mojave, toward a bridge (“the Bridge of the Gods”) crossing the Columbia River at the Oregon-Washington border. Strayed’s writing admirably conveys the rigors and rewards of long-distance hiking. Along the way, she suffered aches, pains, loneliness, blistered, bloody feet and persistent hunger. Yet the author also discovered a newfound sense of awe; for her, hiking the PCT was “powerful and fundamental” and “truly hard and glorious.” Strayed was stunned by how the trail both shattered and sheltered her. Most of the hikers she met along the way were helpful, and she also encountered instances of trail magic, “the unexpected and sweet happenings that stand out in stark relief to the challenges of the trail.”
A candid, inspiring narrative of the author’s brutal physical and psychological journey through a wilderness of despair to a renewed sense of self.
The author of Seabiscuit (2001) returns with another dynamic, well-researched story of guts overcoming odds.
Hillenbrand examines the life of Louis Zamperini, an American airman who, after his bomber crashed in the Pacific during World War II, survived 47 days on a life raft only to be captured by Japanese soldiers and subjected to inhuman treatment for the next two years at a series of POW camps. That his life spiraled out of control when he returned home to the United States is understandable. However, he was able to turn it around after meeting Billy Graham, and he became a Christian speaker and traveled to Japan to forgive his tormentors. The author reconstructs Zamperini’s wild youth, when his hot temper, insubordination, and bold pranks seemed to foretell a future life of crime. His talents as a runner, however, changed all that, getting him to the 1936 Olympics and to the University of Southern California, where he was a star of the track team. When the story turns to World War II, Hillenbrand expands her narrative to include men who served with him in the Air Corps in the Pacific. Through letters and interviews, she brings to life not just the men who were with Zamperini on the life raft and in the Japanese camps, but the families they left behind. The suffering of the men is often difficult to read, for the details of starvation, thirst and shark attacks are followed by the specifics of the brutalities inflicted by the Japanese, particularly the sadistic Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who seemed dedicated to making Zamperini’s life unbearable. Hillenbrand follows Watanabe’s life after the Japanese surrender, providing the perfect foil to Zamperini’s. When Zamperini wrote to his former tormentor to forgive him and attempted to meet him in person, Watanabe rejected him. Throughout are photographs of World War II bombers, POW camps, Zamperini and his fellow GIs and their families and sweethearts, providing a glimpse into a bygone era. Zamperini is still thriving at age 93.
Alternately stomach-wrenching, anger-arousing and spirit-lifting—and always gripping.
The latest from Rash (The World Made Straight, 2006, etc.) is a fine melodrama about a wealthy homicidal couple, latter-day Macbeths, in Depression-era Appalachia.
The book is an artful expansion of “Pemberton’s Bride,” the brilliant standout in Rash’s story collection Chemistry (2007). The opening is unforgettable. Pemberton and his bride Serena return from Boston to Waynesville, in the North Carolina mountains. Waiting at the train station is Abe Harmon and his pregnant daughter Rachel. Harmon has vowed to kill her seducer Pemberton, but the latter knifes the drunk old man to death as Serena watches approvingly. Pemberton has no fear of the consequences, for he owns the lumber company on which Waynesville depends and has the local officials on his payroll, all except his nemesis, sheriff McDowell. He has a worthy mate in Serena, daughter of a Colorado lumber baron; her entire family died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. No sentimentalist, she burnt down the family home before moving East. Eventually she too will bloody her hands, killing an innocent and strengthening her bond with Pemberton. The mercilessly exploited workers soon realize she is Pemberton’s full partner; his former partner is killed in a hunting “accident.” When she saves the life of a foreman, Galloway (felling trees is dangerous work), he becomes her lifelong slave, and hit man; the incompetent doctor who causes Serena to miscarry is just one of Galloway’s victims. But the novel is not just a trail of blood. Rash also focuses on the quiet dignity of Rachel (now a single parent raising Jacob, Pemberton’s son) and shows an unforced reverence for nature, hideously despoiled by Pemberton’s relentless clear-cutting. The lumber king’s one soft spot is his feeling for Jacob, but that proves too much for Serena. The last hundred pages are thrilling, as mother and son take flight; McDowell supports them heroically; and Pemberton…well, see for yourself.
Should be a breakthrough for this masterful storyteller.
The sole survivor of a family massacre is pushed into revisiting a past she’d much rather leave alone, in Flynn’s scorching follow-up to Sharp Objects (2006).
On a January night in 1985, Michelle Day, ten, was strangled, her nine-year-old sister, Debby, killed with an ax, and their mother, Patty, stabbed, hacked and shot to death in the family farmhouse. Weeks after jumping out a window and running off in the Kansas snow, Libby Day, seven, testified that her brother Ben, 15, had killed the family, and he was sent to prison for life amid accusations of sex and Satanism. End of story—except that now that the fund well-wishers raised for Libby has run dry, she has to raise some cash pronto, and her family history turns once more into an ATM. A letter from Lyle Wirth promises her a quick $500 to attend the annual convention of the Kill Club, whose members gather to trade theories about unsolved crimes. When self-loathing Libby (“Draw a picture of my soul, it’d be a scribble with fangs”) realizes that none of the club members believes her story, she reluctantly agrees to earn some more cash by digging up the leading players: Ben, whose letters she’s never opened; their long-departed father Runner, who’s as greedy and unscrupulous as Libby; Krissi Cates, the little girl who’d spent the day before the murders accusing Ben of molesting her; and Ben’s rich, sleazy girlfriend Diondra Wertzner. Flynn intercuts Libby’s venomous detective work with flashbacks to the fatal day 24 years ago so expertly that as they both hurtle toward unspeakable revelations, you won’t know which one you’re more impatient to finish. Only the climax, which is incredible in both good ways and bad, is a letdown.
For most of the wild story’s running time, however, every sentence crackles with enough baleful energy to fuel a whole town through the coldest Kansas winter.
The Appalachian Trail—from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Me.—consists of some five million steps, and Bryson (Notes from a Small Island, 1996, etc.) seems to coax a laugh, and often an unexpectedly startling insight, out of each one he traverses.
It’s not all yuks—though it is hard not to grin idiotically through all 288 pages—for Bryson is a talented portraitist of place. He did his natural-history homework, which is to say he knows a jack-o-lantern mushroom from a hellbender salamander from a purple wartyback mussel, and can also write seriously about the devastation of chestnut blight. He laces his narrative with gobbets of trail history and local trivia, and he makes real the “strange and palpable menace” of the dark deep woods in which he sojourns, the rough-hewn trailscape “mostly high up on the hills, over lonely ridges and forgotten hollows that no one has ever used or coveted,” celebrating as well the “low-level ecstasy” of finding a book left thoughtfully at a trail shelter, or a broom with which to sweep out the shelter’s dross. Yet humor is where the book finds its cues—from Bryson’s frequent trail companion, the obese and slothful Katz, a spacious target for Bryson’s sly wit, to moments of cruel and infantile laughs, as when he picks mercilessly on the witless woman who, admittedly, ruined a couple of their days. But for the most part the humor is bright sarcasm, flashing with drollery and intelligence, even when it’s a far yodel from political sensitivity. Then Bryson will take your breath away with a trenchant critique of the irredeemably vulgar vernacular strip that characterizes many American downtowns, or of other signs of decay he encounters off the trail (though the trail itself he comes to love).
“Walking is what we did,” Bryson states: 800-plus out of the 2,100-plus miles, and that good sliver is sheer comic travel entertainment.
More sad songs—replay them as they lay—in the shimmering oblivion of empty glasses down in Boca Grande (Central America) where Charlotte, another Maria, comes to stay before she is killed. Guerrilleros are everywhere, bloodshed seems inevitable. Charlotte's story is told by an older woman, a lifetime "student of delusion," now dying of cancer. As she comments, Charlotte dreamed her life and didn't make enough distinctions. Like a revenant, she goes to the airport every day, looking for her daughter Marin who hasn't been seen for months, Marin who hijacked a jet and is wanted by the FBI. She's the daughter of Charlotte's first husband Warren, a professor and something of a bastard (he contributes one of the few sharper lines in this book). He's also dying of cancer and for a while they travel together through the motel land of the South. Sometimes they're joined by Charlotte's second husband, Leonard, an activist lawyer, and later he disposes of Warren's ashes. Charlotte is carrying Leonard's child who will never see life—a hydrocephalic. Another mortal statistic. But then is Charlotte really alive—in a haze of amphetamines, sleeping in the afternoon, lying awake at night afraid of the dark? One of those lost ladies, dim survivors. Maybe she couldn't make any distinctions but Joan Didion knows the right ones—the Peychaud bitters that go with the Tanqueray gin. They add a decorative sophistication to all these fatal conjunctions. But my, what a stacked deck, as glossy and synthetic as those plastic cards which stick in humid weather. Que sera, this has the same frayed, seductive quality as the earlier novel and it will connect again, one to one, one to many.
In the spiky spirit of Sunday Morning (1969) but more truly attuned to a child's point of view, Viorst reviews a really aggravating (if not terrible, horrible, and very bad) day in the life of a properly disgruntled kid who wakes up with gum in his hair and goes to bed after enduring lima beans for dinner and kissing on T.V.
At school, "Mrs. Dickens liked Paul's picture of sailboat better than my picture of the invisible castle," and at lunch, "guess whose mother forgot to put in dessert?" After school "my mom took us all to the dentist and Dr. Fields found a cavity just in me," and there is worse to come. It's no wonder the kid's ready to move to Australia, but in the end, "My mom says some days are like that. Even in Australia."
If Alexander's mother is smart to offer casual sympathy without phoney consolation, Cruz and Viorst accord readers the same respect. (Picture book. 3-8)
A vivid account of a 19th-century maritime disaster that engaged the popular imagination of the time with its horrors of castaways and cannibalism.
Just west of the Galápagos Islands, the Nantucket whale ship Essex was struck on November 20, 1820, by an 85-foot bull sperm whale. Yet the sinking was only the beginning of a fantastic voyage, narrated with brio and informed speculation by Philbrick, director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies and a research fellow at the Nantucket Historical Association. For three months the 20 men who escaped the Essex drifted in three smaller open boats, enduring squalls, attacks by sharks and another whale, starvation, dehydration, madness, and despair, capped by eating the flesh of comrades who had begun to die off – and, in one instance, casting lots to see who would be killed and eaten next. When eight remaining castaways were retrieved off the coast of Chile, they had sailed almost 4,500 nautical miles across the Pacific – farther than both William Bligh’s post-Bounty voyage and Ernest Shackleton’s trek to South Georgia Island nearly a century later. An account by first mate Owen Chase provided fodder for, most famously, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, which took Chase’s description of the whale’s “decided, calculated mischief” as its central motif. Philbrick uses Chase’s narrative and an unpublished memoir by the ship’s cabin boy, as well as recent medical and psychological discoveries, to limn the terror of men faced with their most elemental fears. He also brings to life the Quaker-dominated society of Nantucket, including its ambivalence toward African-American sailors and its short existence as a microcosm of an emerging America: “relentlessly acquisitive, technologically advanced, with a religious sense of its own destiny.”
A gripping chronicle of an epic voyage of hardship and survival that deserves to be as well known now as it once was. (16 pages b&w illustrations) (First serial rights to Vanity Fair; author tour)