Book review: Eleanor & Park

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The best book I’ve read all summer! Okay, I know this isn’t saying much. I think I’ve read only twelve books so far. But still. I loved it. I cried at least five times, six if you include this morning when I retold the entire story to my seven-year-old. I choked up when I recounted the ending, and the waterworks started up all over again. She didn’t really get it. Partly because she’s seven and partly because I had to give her a sort of G-rated version of story.

I bought the connection between Eleanor and Park, and I wanted them to be together. It’s a deceptively simple thing for a book to make me do. How many rom-coms have I watched or books have I read that tried to do that and failed? I’m left throwing popcorn at the screen or tossing the book aside, yelling, “You’re all wrong for each other!” or “He’s a jerk! What do you even see in him?” or (most damning) “Who cares?”

I was dreading the ending. [Spoiler alert! Do not read the rest of this review if you don’t want to hear my thoughts on the ending!] I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy.[I was so afraid it was going to end in that realistic but unsatisfying way, where they grow up and drift apart and eventually break up. The Wonder Years ending. The “and she’ll always have a special place in my heart” ending. The way it actually ended was very sad, but necessary. I also liked that it left a shred of hope in the form of that postcard. That way I can imagine that it all worked out in the end. In my mind, they’re together now. And they’re happy. (hide spoiler)]

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Book Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I grew up in the foothills of the Sierras and now live in Portland, where Cheryl Strayed ends her 1100-mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. My familiarity with the landscape added to my experience as a reader of Wild, seeing the trails and little towns I know so well through the eyes of a novice hiker with zero backpacking experience.

Due to extreme weather conditions, she made the wise decision to skip over the highest passes with the most spectacular vistas, along the John Muir Trail. I have backpacked along bits and pieces of it myself. (Don’t be impressed; my dad was the outdoorsy sort who dragged me along and carried all the water and food.) Bypassing this section of the trail was a disappointment for her and me, the reader who now prefers to get her dose of wilderness adventuring through books.

It took me a good fifty pages to acclimate myself to Wild. Strayed’s prose style verges on melodramatic, with many, many one-sentence paragraphs and repeated lines:

I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.

It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.

Her writer’s hand is too heavy, her sentences cluttered with adjectives and adverbs. This isn’t my favorite style of writing, but once the trail scenes picked up, the prose became less distracting, and I was able to immerse myself in the story.

When we’re not on the trail, we’re excavating Strayed’s past. Four years before her trek, her mother died, and Strayed self-destructed. She lashed out, made questionable decisions, and left her doting husband. The idea to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came years later. Much of the book digs back into the past, unearthing Strayed’s demons. These sections lagged; I longed to get back on the trail. To not appreciate this part of the book is to not appreciate Wild at all, you may be protesting. How she lost herself after her mother’s death and found herself again on the PCT was, after all, the entire raison d’être of the memoir. But I was there for the nitty-gritty survival details: rationing food and water, counting miles and blackened toenails.

Strayed came to the trail only half prepared. She hadn’t broken in her boots and her pack had to weigh more than fifty pounds. But was she playing up her incompetence for the sake of the story? She had practically memorized her guidebook and knew how many miles she’d be able to hike and when she needed to pick up each box of supplies. If you were really spontaneous and impulsive, you’d botch that up. Or you wouldn’t arrange to get supplies mailed to you along the trail at all, imagining you’d nourish yourself with birds and lizards.

Some people can’t stand characters like this. (And I know Cheryl Strayed is not really a character but a real person—we have fourteen mutual Facebook friends, as a matter of fact!) It can be a challenge to root for characters who do stupid things, who act without considering how awful it would be if they died of thirst or fell off a cliff. Strayed reminds me of another character/real-life adventurer, Christopher McCandless. People ask the same questions about him: was he a free spirit, someone to romanticize and admire? Or just selfish and possibly mentally unstable?

I am a romantic—but also a very practical person. I would never do what they did. I wouldn’t venture “into the wild” with ten pounds of rice and a rifle, like Christopher McCandless. Nor would I set off on the longest and most difficult hiking trails on the continent after reading a few guidebooks and a buying some cargo shorts at R.E.I.

But who is going to read a memoir about the summer I didn’t journey into the wild or try to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Who is inspired by the time I didn’t do something dangerous and somewhat crazy . . . and instead stayed at home and worked a minimum wage summer job? I love to read about people like Christopher McCandless and Cheryl Strayed. They can be foolhardy and sort of inspiring and—here’s the main thing—compelling characters—all at the same time.

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Book Review: Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons

A Thousand PardonsA Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two years ago I heard Jonathan Dee read the beginning of this novel, and I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. Finally that day arrived. The beginning (and by beginning I mean the first seven pages) was just as good as I remembered. The novel opens with a checked-out husband and frustrated wife on their way to marriage therapy, explained to their eye-rolling daughter as “date night.” Dee’s writing is crisp and I always enjoy bummed-out-in-the-suburbs stories, so we were off to a promising start.

The subsequent pages don’t pack the same punch. A Thousand Pardons feels a bit underwritten, almost like an early draft of a novel before it gets fleshed out with atmosphere and characterization. The biggest element missing throughout was a believable emotional landscape. The characters act like robots. Within the first couple chapters, Helen’s husband engages in a public scandal with a younger woman and the couple gets a quick divorce–and Helen doesn’t have any sort of emotional reaction. She’s not angry or sad or embittered or . . . anything. And their daughter’s response is bizarre, too: she figures her dad and the younger woman were both adults, so she doesn’t blame them. What kid understands when her dad does something like that?

I did enjoy Helen’s career trajectory, even if it wasn’t entirely believable that she could go from housewife to “crisis management” genius in a matter of months. The final plot thread has Helen coming to the rescue of an old acquaintance, an A-list star who finds himself in a troubling predicament. The resolution to this thread–which serves as the conclusion of the entire book–doesn’t ring true.

Despite the problems I had with the book, I still zipped right through it. Dee’s prose is so expert and engaging, he makes even the long (and frequent) expositional passages go down smoothly. A Thousand Pardons is a disappointing follow-up to The Privileges, but still contains enough of that Jonathan Dee magic to make it work.

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