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Cheryl Strayed – Wild

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Climb every mountain.

Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
Pages: 309
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-59273-6
First Published: 20th March 2012
Date Reviewed: 12th January 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

By 26, Cheryl Strayed had lost her mother, had multiple affairs as a result of the pain and confusion, and divorced her husband who she still loved, knowing that separating was the right thing to do. Looking back on a random shopping trip she’d taken, when she’d seen a guidebook about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed decided to up sticks and take up the challenge of travelling a large portion of it (without any preparation), hoping it would help her get back to herself and work out how to move on.

Wild is a memoir, a hybrid of travel report and spiritual (not religious) journey that includes both the day to day of Strayed’s literal journey and flashbacks to the past. Written up around 18 years after the events it rests on memory and diary notes.

I’ve written that last sentence now so we can deal with this part first – it’s best to know before going into Strayed’s memoir that a lot of time has passed since her journey and thus when something doesn’t sound quite true or realistic, it’s not necessarily made up, though of course it could be. There are a lot of anecdotes and repeated information, a lot of detail that is difficult to believe considering Strayed never mentions writing in her journal (instead falling asleep exhausted many times) and some things sound a little too… cute. It’s fair, in this book’s case, to say that Strayed probably isn’t lying – she has most likely forgotten a lot of details and had to rely on sketchy memories and other people’s memories to form conversations. Because she’s detailed a lot of conversations in great, well, detail.

It’s obviously a pity from this perspective that the journey happened so long ago, but the dubious quality of the book is not, at least, a drawback. Strayed doesn’t exactly impress upon you the fact she’s writing so late, but it’s not been hidden either. Who knows, perhaps some of it was written up and no one wanted to publish it at the time. Suffice to say it’s worth keeping all this mind, accepting that your doubts may be warranted, and then getting on with the book.

Because it’s a good book. Strayed is open about the fact she’s no seasoned hiker (and you’re not going to find Bill Bryson or the like here) but that’s part of the journey. Strayed learns to hike as she goes along, detailing plainly her silly, rash, decisions, her embarrassing moments, the times she was worried and wanted to quit, and this lack of knowledge means that the book is accessible to anyone who is interested in hiking, whatever their own experience. (It’s worth noting that Strayed doesn’t hike all of the trail, and a few times she hitch-hikes to bypass certain sections which can be a bit disappointing as a reader.)

Less humble is Strayed’s discussion of her family. There is an element of self-absorption in the book that’s pretty tolerable during the hiking sections but less so in flashbacks. Strayed casts herself as the golden child, putting herself on a pedestal and detailing the lack of time her siblings put into the event of their mother’s illness and the aftermath of her death. It could well be true, and certainly Strayed talks more objectively about her siblings later on, but it doesn’t do Strayed any favours. Most other people are given more thrift. Strayed’s ex-husband is blameless, indeed Strayed makes it clear it was her fault without going into apologies – it’s a fact, it happened, and now she’s got to move on. Fellow travellers fare differently depending on how they appeared and how they treated Strayed, quite naturally. For all this book is about solo hiking, there are meetings with many other people, too.

It’s true that whilst open and humble about her lack of hiking ability, Strayed has a lot of good luck on her journey and writes a lot of me-me-me paragraphs. This is where you have to know that this isn’t simply a travel memoir – the whole point of Strayed’s journey, whilst, yes, she certainly wants to be able to say she managed to hike the trail and celebrate such an accomplishment, is to move on from her mother’s death. But yes, it can at times become a bit much.

Now the prose itself is far from perfect but as an overall product, Wild is a good, easy, read. Strayed succeeds in taking you along with her to the point that you’ll likely feel as daunted, yes daunted, once the end is nigh – physical exertion aside, you’ll feel you’ve joined Strayed on the trail. As much as she looks back on her life she describes the landscape and offers an image clear enough that the lack of photography in the book is no drawback. What’s the landscape? Forest, desert, snow, sun, heavy rain – pretty much everything. There’s even a crater formally known as a volcano. And throughout Strayed carries her monstrous backpack, the shoes on her feet causing her no end of problems. (She’s pretty graphic about those problems; beware if you plan to read this book over lunch.)

Strayed discusses abortion, her affairs, her drug use, openly – almost to a fault. She swears casually. This is a book full of heart, full of personal truth, but it must be said there’s no big resolution, in fact the book ends quite suddenly with a purchased reward, a glimpse of what hindsight could have told her about the future, and nothing else. Clearly the takeaway is the journey, the journey on foot and the journey in mind.

A special mention must be made for the literary details. Strayed reports on the books she read during her trip, their subject matter, what she likes about them, and then their unfortunate end as she turns their extra pack weight into ashes. There’s a nice variety here and to show that books are important despite their sorry ends, there’s even a list of them at the back of the book in case you want to be well-read in a particular Cheryl Strayed manner.

Wild offers the chance to go on a long hike without moving a muscle. It offers a story of personal growth and redemption that’s earnest and unashamed, even inspiring. Should you read it? Yes; even after all the problems discussed, I still think you should.

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James Rhodes – Instrumental

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Instru, mental (health), and music.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 264
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-11337-9
First Published: 28th May 2015
Date Reviewed: 20th October 2015
Rating: 5/5

On paper, James Rhodes had a privileged childhood. He went to posh prep schools and later to Harrow. In reality, his first years were marred by sexual abuse. Now a fairly successful pianist, Rhodes looks back on his past, the multiple mental illnesses he developed that stifled any happiness and success for a long while and saw him hospitalised, and at the way classical music saved him.

How much can a 38 year old say that is worthy of a memoir? In this case, a lot. Rhodes’ book is one of suffering, of healing (somewhat – this book is realistic), of music, and in many ways advice, all compiled into chapters that begin with a look at the mental health of a particular composer and a suggestion for a musical interlude.

Rhodes is modest, very humble, and what makes the book so successful is that whilst he is privileged and can name drop like the best (he went to school with Benedict Cumberbatch, for example) there is a very true feeling throughout that he believes it. This is not to say that it’s good to read about someone who had everything and is suffering – do not take my meaning the wrong way – it is to say that Rhodes’ place in the world means he’s truly in the middle, having had a lot but being right on a level with your average Joe. And he has had advantages, that’s true, but his has not been a simple journey of boom, healed, and then success.

And he writes with a particular honesty. There is the frankness in what Rhodes says; he speaks openly and harshly without going into too much detail for his own piece of mind. His prose is casual and welcoming, simple yet literary. He swears as he talks, casually, often, but sometimes because it is an effective way to explain a feeling.

Rhodes gives advice on some subjects, for example his advice on relationships (which I’ll point out is short in case it sounds like this is a self-help book – it’s not) that he has learned from the way he sees and deals with his own. He offers a lot of his opinion on how the classical music industry should change (this part is a little preachy but no less worthy). What he doesn’t advise on, however, is self-harm, drug use, suicide. Rhodes, though still falling back occasionally, has made his peace with many of the things he’s done in his life but says that people need to be careful with their support. In fact what he says is that we need to stop judging and worrying about and medicating those who self-harm and think of suicide. He shows how what others saw as support hindered him from healing. As far as the book’s importance in a general sense, this information is perhaps the most compelling reason for reading it.

Rhodes writes as much for those who haven’t had his experience as for those who have. He’s showing hope whilst remaining realistic, he shows that there are amazing ways out whilst showing that some are just average. And all through it is his self-effacing view of himself that wins you over because you can see how much good he is doing and you hope that he sees it himself.

I said above that Rhodes is preachy on the subject of music. His opinions themselves aren’t but do seem so when he speaks about music being the last art to have a strict classic genre and forgets books, and one hopes he knows of a previous attempt (successful in many cases) to bring children to classical music – The Magical Music Box magazine of the 90s. Rhodes makes a strong case that is absolutely fair – one hopes he succeeds in bridging the divide between the general populous and the elitism in the genre. Just one nitpick: he rules out contemporary classical music, stating that by all means a musician should play a new piece of music but that it won’t ever rival the old masters. The issue is that in making people, young people who don’t fit the stereotype of hoity toity classical music rah rahs, interested in it, is going to result in some of those people being inspired to create some themselves. To restrict such growth would be to come full circle and limit classical music to the old posh listeners.

Instrumental is important; it should to be read, it needs to be discussed. It needs to be read all the more so because of the ridiculous law suit raised to attempt to stop it being published which led to Rhodes being unable to talk about his abuse, just as he was unable to as a child. Writing it might just be the most important thing the pianist has ever done.

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Anya Von Bremzen – Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking

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Rations versus cuisine.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 294 (324 including recipes)
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-88681-1
First Published: 12th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th September 2013
Rating: 4/5

Von Bremzen chronicles the culinary history of Russia from the 1910s to the present day, interspersing it with political and social history as well as her own.

Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is an intriguing book that blends to a smooth mixture memoir, history and, of course, food. Set up as a project between the author and her mother to visit each decade of Russia’s history via a meal, the book soon devolves into an overall look at the way food was used and consumed in the USSR.

There is a lot of general Russian history in the book, and it will ‘work’ best for the reader if they approach it already familiar with the beginnings of the Soviet Union. Whilst Von Bremzen explains a lot of the reasons for various choices and so forth, she does not introduce the initial change itself. Beyond this, the history is very well described and the reader will come away with a good amount of knowledge about the role of food in Russia.

Well described, too, is the food itself. Due to the limits present in writing about meals (in other words you are of course only reading about the food without tasting or picturing it) it may not be as memorable as the rest of the content, but Von Bremzen’s success is necessarily in the way she links food to the regime itself. For example she explains how the regular person ate, and then details what those who said ‘everyone is equal’ ate.

It is hard not to become fond of Von Bremzen’s family. As the author’s mother played a part in the creation of the book, this is whom you are likely to be most fond of, especially as Larissa comes across as the sort of person you wish would grace more books. Von Bremzen’s mother saw the reality in situations at a young age, so in her daughter’s story you get to see both versions of the history – what it looked like and what it was, and you get this from day one rather than in hindsight. Von Bremzen’s childhood antics are fun, but it is undoubtedly Larissa who steals the show.

The recipes described are contained at the back of the book, and due to their placement the not-quite-concluded final narrative chapter feels strangely fine. In any other book the lack of a conclusion would be a negative, but it really doesn’t matter here and just goes to show that history is still in the making. Indeed if Von Bremzen had left it just a few more years, a whole other decade would have had to have been included.

The one potential downside is the writing style. Von Bremzen has chosen an extremely colloquial language that on many occasions can be difficult to understand. (This is separate to her use of Russian words which is of course a completely different matter – and everything is translated.) In some ways the text reads as though it were a casual speech rather than a book. Slang words and phrases are used, such as ‘cheapo’ (‘cheap’ is never used), aka, and ‘egg thingies’.

The writing has the potential to be a drawback, as does the amount of political history if the reader is expecting food all the time, but overall Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is an informative book with a fascinating cast of real characters. The recipes are introduced well with enough prior information on them for anyone intrigued to want to give them a go, and there is a fair amount of humour and personality in the book.

A good introduction to Russian food history, Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is likely to appeal to anyone who likes the idea of a meal and memoir mix.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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John Elder Robison – Raising Cubby

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Inaccessibility has never been so accessible.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 354
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-88484-8
First Published: 15th January 2013
Date Reviewed: 10th April 2013
Rating: 5/5

Robison recounts his time as a parent with Asperger’s, bringing up a child from birth to the teenage years. Involving stories of entrepreneurship, life when society doesn’t always understand you, and court cases when people make mountains out of molehills, Robison’s book is about himself as much as it is his son’s progression and the possibility that Cubby (Jack) might have Asperger’s, too.

Raising Cubby is a wonderful book that is successful as much for what it doesn’t say than for what it does. Robison takes the approach of organising his book by topic rather than by life stage, meaning that you read a lot more about Jack than you might have if the story had been completely linear. And whilst Robison has much to impart about Autism, he does it in a way that invites the reader into the fold. The book seems fresh, and it is, because you have the first-hand experience rather than an account by someone who knows someone with a condition, as is so often the case.

Robison balances serious statements with a lot of easy humour. His book is in the vein of that new phrase, ‘literary non-fiction’, where the story flows as well as any novel. It is an account, but it feels as though he is talking directly to you at times, and his humour invites a certain intimacy – you will finish this book feeling as though you’ve known the people in it for years.

This leads us onto the next point, because this affability and invitation seems at odds with what Robison describes of himself and of Autism in general. Taken at face value, as he says, those on the autistic spectrum can seem rude and anti-social. So the accessibility of his book knocks that notion out of the water. Which is brilliant, really, as it further backs up the truth of the matter, which, as Robison says, is that those on the spectrum wish to have friends, but happen to be oblivious to the way they come across to others.

The last point in the previous paragraph does not in turn relate to the writing in the book, however. Robison speaks naturally and has a good command of language, you would expect an English degree to be amongst his accolades. This in itself may surprise some readers, and by itself makes the book stand out as one that would be an invaluable source to schools and any organisations that struggle to understand those on the spectrum. But in addition, Robison writes honestly, he never censors himself – in other words he includes decisions he’s made that might sound strange to many, without any hint of apology or explanation. He clarifies the first few times, so that you will be able to tell where his Asperger’s has played a part in decisions, but otherwise there is nothing. Therefore when things sound odd there are no excuses – this is Robison, this is an example of Asperger’s, and as a reader you just get used to it. Robison explains the logic to some decisions so that you come to understand his mindset, but the overall approach means that not only will the uninformed reader come away knowing a lot more about Autism than they would any book by unaffected ‘experts’ but readers with autism will likely be able to relate to it, too, especially since there is no time for patronisation or misplaced sympathy. Raising Cubby is very much a book for anyone.

Due to the inclination for obsessive interests, readers who love the following topics will find in this book fodder for them: the upkeep and alteration of musical instruments, repairing and refurbishing cars, building homes, and chemistry. There is enough information about trading card games to appeal to those who may have had trouble leaving them behind with childhood. It’s not that the book is lengthy with masses of information, it’s the way that information is incorporated throughout. Robison is a geek, and the reader can rest assured that they can join him without any of the eye-rolling or sighs that often accompany responses when an attempt is made to discuss a beloved subject in person.

…the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had also charged him with one count of “possessing explosives with the intent to harm people or property”. I guess that was their backstop – if they couldn’t prove he harmed people or destroyed property, they wanted to prove he meant to.

The book is striking for many reasons, but one reason is far removed from the others. As Cubby, a child genius with no understanding for how others would view him, experimented with chemistry, the law inevitably arrived at the door. This episode gives Robison the opportunity to call into question the vast chasm that is rules made for the typical person coming up against people for whom they cannot work. Robison shows how naivety and disability are exploited for gain by others, and how the rules need to be changed. The account of Cubby’s trial inevitably calls to mind the case of Gary Mackinnon, a British man with Autism who hacked into the Pentagon computers to find evidence of aliens. Robison’s account may not refer to it, but the two events run neatly in line. Things are not black and white, especially when disability is involved.

Robison may have an epilogue that hopes for changes in the court system, further progression for acceptance, and education in society of those who do not match the expectations of society, but the strength of his book surely lies most in the overall approach and content. Raising Cubby is a brilliant book for general reading, but there is no doubt that the best future for it would be in the consumption by those who deal with people on the spectrum on a constant basis and who as yet lack the information necessary to both help their charges excel, and excel as teachers themselves.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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Becky Aikman – Saturday Night Widows

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Life after death. A great life.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 334
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-59043-5
First Published: 22nd January 2013
Date Reviewed: 31st January 2013
Rating: 5/5

Aikman tells the story of life as a widow; first being dumped from the stereotypical support group, and then her quest to create a new sort of group – one focused on remaking lives and finding oneself in new experiences. She gathers five women of similar ages together and each month for a year they try something new – a spa, a cooking lesson, and lastly a grand holiday. Along the way they learn to live with their new lives and to love again. Interspersed with this main story are those of the days each woman lost her husband, Aikman’s discovery of new love, and information about research into grief.

Saturday Night Widows is a fantastic book with fantastic characters. It’s safe to say that if this were fiction, these women would be on book-lover’s lists everywhere and this is testament to how wonderful they are and how well Aikman writes. Rather than focusing on loss and grief, Aikman looks at the positives, the second chance at life and the chance to remake oneself – whilst grief is included, this is a book about happiness and triumph.

From what Aikman says, it appears that apart from wanting to simply conduct an experiment, Aikman may have envisaged a book from the very start; that is perhaps the reason why the memoir is insightful, helpful for those going through grief, and just simply a good book in general.

One of the most important themes of the book is the way both outsiders and the women themselves relate to widowhood and death, for example when Aikman wished to hire staff at an art museum to conduct a tour about remaking lives, the manager phoned her with ideas for art focusing on death. Aikman details how people can be overly helpful or say the wrong things, whether in innocence or because they feel the time for mourning should be over, and she explains (often in the context of her friends) why these things are bad.

Important too are the issues with blending families – two newly-single parents coming together when children are in the mix – which includes Aikman’s own issues with being a stepmother to a girl who didn’t want a stepmother. Whilst the women in the group are of similar ages their children are not, and this allows for a broad assessment of complications, and, of course, achievements.

And considering the ages of the women – the youngest 39, the oldest 57 – there was no easy acceptance of death as there might have been in old-age. With a variety of reasons for the deaths, including sudden death and suicide, the women present a detailed look at grieving and coping.

Dawn didn’t know anything about lotus blossoms when he gave her the photograph six months before he died. She asked him why, of all the glorious sights in the wild, he had chosen this image of a lotus, rooted in an inky swamp, for her. “It is because a lotus blossom will grow and perfume and flower,” he said, “even in the muck”.
Everyone made that same contented sound that Dawn had uttered before. We got it, all right. All of us – Denise, Dawn, Marcia, Lesley, Tara, me – we were blooming in the muck.

Wonderful is the way Aikman presents the women, how they leap off the pages, as colourful and positive in print as they’ve become in real-life. The presentation to the reader is a remaking in its own way as you grow to love them and know them rather well.

The one thing that might divide readers is the focus on experiments. There is quite a lot of exploration into scientific research and trials that can at times seem rather careless (the trials themselves that is, rather than Aikman’s retelling). Aikman details the women as though they are an experiment and this can make them read as children sometimes rather than friends. True, the group was an experiment of sorts, and Aikman, a reporter by trade, speaks of how she took her tape recorder to meetings and lead them in a way, but it can subtract from the friendliness and healing aspects of it all. One could say that to Aikman these women were subjects, but as you read on it is clear she is one of them just as much as any other. Yet all this is understandable because of Aikman’s job as a reporter, and, it must be said, it’s also quite a boon to the book because of the unique angle it takes and the information it offers to anyone wishing to look into it as a subject.

A great deal of credit must go to Aikman’s writing style, the way she mixes accounts of the monthly meetings with memories of the past and what is happening in the present. The book would likely not suffer if it were just focused on the meetings, because it is a strong thread as it is, but these three aspects and time periods mean that the book is so varied and detailed (even without straying from the main theme) that it is difficult not to want to keep reading. There is never a dull moment where nothing happens. If this is a prime example of Aikman’s work then the newspaper she worked at has surely lost a fabulous employee.

Saturday Night Widows has a vast appeal. Undoubtedly a book for women who have also lost their husbands, the work has a general interest aspect to it as well as being a likely candidate for a book about women that would interest a male audience, too. Filled with memorable people who you will find yourself continuing to root for beyond the last page, the book is an example of looking adversity in the eye without suggesting that grief is anything but awful to get away from. Sad, happy, contemplative, funny, and sentimental without dwelling too long (indeed this is the group’s aim), and written by a true talent with plenty of experience in the craft, Saturday Night Widows is one to look out for on any night of the week.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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