Monday, May 21, 2012

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

by Cheryl Strayed

   I normally don’t choose to review books that have received as much publicity as Cheryl Strayed’s newly-released “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” I generally use this column to point readers toward a book they may not be aware of. But “rules are made to be broken” as they say and I just feel compelled to tell you about this book.
   “Wild” is so much more than a book about hiking and so much more than a book about traversing the Pacific Crest Trail. Cheryl Strayed is brutally honest in her portrayal of her journey but also about her life and the decisions that led her to hike the PCT alone.
   After her mother’s death from cancer and in the wake of a divorce, Cheryl was groping for fresh direction in her life and decided that setting a goal to hike the PCT would be healing as she worked to set direction for her life going forward. Although she had never backpacked before, she loaded supplies into her “monster” pack, filling it with so many necessities that she can hardly lift the pack. But she perseveres and – with a few side trip adventures along the way – makes her way through the 1100-mile-long journey from Southern California to the Columbia River in Oregon.
   While there are plenty of descriptions of walking the trail and the physical effort and adventure that it entails, the story has many other side trips into Cheryl’s life and past. She is frank about her many infidelities that led to the divorce and her dangerous flirtation with heroin with a boyfriend in Portland. She relives again the horrific cancer battle her mother faced and her emotions of deep loss and anger in its wake. She remembers her family life and the step father who tried to keep the family together for a time after her mother’s loss but ultimately left to go his own way. And we can easily see her own strengths and flaws exhibited in the decisions Cheryl makes along the trail.
   In Oregon, there are stops in Ashland just after Jerry Garcia’s death where Cheryl takes a planned weekend off from hiking. She takes part in the local Deadhead celebrations and finally finds a sexual encounter as a diversion from the brutal physical realities of the journey. (She persists in carrying a condom in her enormous pack – always open to the possibilities.) She rests at a peaceful stop at Shelter Cove Resort. She hikes to the brink of Crater Lake. She hikes through the Three Sisters Wilderness but has a scary encounter with some lusty hunters near Mount Jefferson. She enjoys a visit to Olallie Lake along with a group of fellow hikers. She stops at Timberline Lodge in the home stretch.
   Most of all, Cheryl makes peace with her feelings of anger about her mother’s death and sorts out her emotions in the wake of her divorce - all while facing an enormous personal challenge. Her frank account can’t help but move you.
   Raised in Minnesota, Strayed now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, and their two children.

The Language of Flowers
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

   I more fully understood Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s book “The Language of Flowers” when I realized that the author had real-life experience as a foster mother. I then realized that she had first-hand understanding of young people who were so damaged by early abandonment and difficult foster placements that they feared contact (even loving acceptance) and became hardened to the point that they would sabotage relationships rather than open themselves to vulnerability and to the love they truly crave.
   In the “Language of Flowers” we meet Victoria, who was abandoned by her mother at birth and has lived in 32 different foster homes before the age of eighteen. Her only real opportunity for adoption was by a woman named Elizabeth with whom she lived for a year at the age if nine, anticipating adoption before tragedy prevented it. We initially meet Victoria much later in her young life, emotionally injured by a long string of unfortunate placements and about to graduate into a last-ditch group home before the system officially is no longer responsible for her care. Headstrong and destructive, Victoria chooses life on the streets above any further contact with the social service system or her long-suffering case worker.
   Eventually, hunger and a realization that she must find some type of employment lead Victoria to approach a florist who is impressed with her unexpected flair for flowers and flower arrangements – skills she learned years ago from Elizabeth. Soon Victoria earns herself a position at “Blooms” floral shop where she surprises the owner’s clientele with her gift for choosing flowers based upon their traditional meanings – and she is often credited with an almost magical insight in matching the flower arrangement with a situation’s emotional components.
   Victoria’s frequent visits to the flower market with florist Renata bring her into contact with Grant, a young man who shares her passion for the meanings best conveyed by flowers. Over time Grant gently and persistently seeks to break down the barriers to personal contact that Victoria has constructed over so many, many years with shocking (and almost tragic) consequences. Finally, Victoria shares the secrets that she has held close for so long and the reasons for her estrangement from Elizabeth who she had allowed herself to love so deeply. We finally learn the how Victoria’s fears caused her to push away the person who truly loved and accepted her, destroying the security and love that she had long sought.
   Fortunately, permanent disaster is averted but not without great cost and complication – and shocking choices made by Victoria. But the “language of flowers” is – of course – part of the author’s resolution. Diffenbaugh has created a captivatingly unexpected story and an engrossing, compelling read.
   Author Vanessa Diffenbaugh found inspiration for “The Language of Flowers” in her own experiences as a foster mother. She studied creative writing and education at Stanford and taught art and writing to low-income youth. She and her husband have three children and live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is her first novel.
The Redbreast
by Jo Nesbo

   For readers who are still lamenting the unfortunate demise of Steig Larsen, author of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, take heart! Jo Nesbo, a brilliant Norwegian crime writer is alive and well! And Jo’s plots are so elegantly crafted and his books so literary that you will rejoice in knowing that Mr. Nesbo has numerous novels already to his credit and that he is still producing them for his growing number of international fans.
   I suggest that you begin with “The Redbreast” which serves as a great introduction to Oslo police detective Harry Hole, who struggles with alcoholism but who has notable tenacity, integrity and occasional brilliance in tracking down the truth. And, although the detective who struggles with an attraction for the bottle is a bit of a stereotype, Harry Hole is certainly not. In addition, Jo Nesbo’s novel is also populated by a wealth of other characters who are so believable – even expendable – that it frees his novels to be totally surprising and unpredictable in ways that most crime series can’t even approach.
   Without gratuitous gore or sexual content, “The Redbreast” sends us on a thrill ride through Harry Hole’s investigation of neo-Nazi activities that leads to his focus on the illegal importation of a rifle believed to be meant for assassination of at least one important national figure. The novel explores in depth the links between a number of present day characters and their roles and relationships during World War II. In historical hindsight, the national leadership is viewed to have collaborated with Nazi Germany and many disgraced former soldiers remain bitter because of the wartime actions of their rulers. In fact, they are still so filled with anger toward the government that they are looking for effective ways to take violent action in the present.
   Just to make things more interesting, corruption within the police department not only thwarts Harry but also poses a very significant danger to Detective Hole and his allies as they work to track down the truth and to stop a terrifyingly methodical assassin who is hiding in plain sight.
   “The Redbreast” is an intelligent, literary read with plenty of suspense for those who are seeking a quality crime thriller that is difficult to put down. I strongly recommend it to you.
    Jo Nesbo is the most successful Norwegian author of all time with 9 million books sold. His books are published in 41 different languages around the world, and he is widely recognized as one of Europe's foremost crime writers.
   “The Redbreast" is the winner of the Glass Key prize for the best Nordic crime novel, and has been voted Norway’s best work of crime fiction.
Wire to Wire
by Scott Sparling

   Are you ready for an unexpected, unorthodox thrill ride? “Wire to Wire” by Scott Sparling is a beautifully crafted thrill ride of a novel, populated by uniquely flawed characters. While you may not expect to care about them, this skillful writer pulls you into the story with insightful writing that reveals unorthodox stories and settings.
   While hopping a ride on a freight train with his good buddy, Harp, Michael Slater is almost electrocuted when a live overhead power line hits him in the head, sending an enormous jolt of electricity through his body. After a brief stint of rehabilitation in Arizona, Michael runs back to meet up with Harp in northern Michigan after leaving a disreputable rival for dead in the remote desert.
   After driving the dead man’s broken-down vehicle back to reunite with Harp, Michael finds himself falling in love with Harp’s girlfriend, Lane, who - while lovely and incredibly sensual - has a significant addiction to sniffing glue. It also turns out that Lane’s brother, Charlie, is the area’s drug dealer who also runs a house of ill repute. Charlie is also involved in many other behind-the-scenes illicit schemes – some involving violence and destruction. One of his major problems is a dead girl in the freezer he must find a way to dispose of! And Michael is unaware that the beat-up car he drove from Arizona is padded with cash that others have not forgotten about. Nor is the creep he left dying in the desert likely to “forgive and forget”.
   Years later, Michael is still haunted by the events that play out when all of these incendiary ingredients collide. As he works as a film editor, his flickering video screens often seem to call up significant images and events that he is still trying to sort out. Michael also vividly recalls the romance and thrill of catching rides on box cars and roaming where the rails might take him, exploring an oddly poetic but gritty and wildly dangerous world.
   Not afraid of a expertly written thrill ride of a novel even if there is plenty of sex, drugs, and violence? - A novel filled with characters unlike any you have ever met who will make you care about them in spite of their deep flaws and addictions? Then “Wire to Wire” is for you! This novel is surprisingly wonderful and Sparling’s writing skill absolutely dazzles!
   Scott Sparling lives somewhere near the railroad tracks not far from Portland, Oregon with his wife and son.  “Wire to Wire” is his first novel.
The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant 

As soon as I read the prologue of “The Tiger”, I knew that I was in for a literary treat. I could almost hear the snow crunch under the feet of the unwitting trapper and I could almost feel the overwhelming cold of the sub-zero air as he and his dog made their weary approach to his compound where a focused, dangerous tiger is waiting in the darkness. The author uses the tale of this unfortunate trapper (attacked, killed, and eaten) and the search for the tiger - as well as an explanation for the killing – to explore the plight of these magnificent creatures while providing a well-researched overview of the region’s history and its threatened environment.
The volume is beautifully written, dramatic and very informative. The story is told from three primary perspectives – Vladimir Markov, the poacher who is killed by the tiger at the book’s beginning; Yuri Trush, the tracker who seeks the dangerous tiger to unravel the mystery and prevent other deaths, and the tiger himself. While a heavily armed expedition seeks to find and stop the tiger, John Vaillant explores the inner life the tiger so that we can understand events from its wild perspective. As he relates the story, Vaillant paints an unforgettable picture of a beautiful and mysterious region – the last habitat of the largest tigers on our planet.
John Vaillant has done a magnificent job of research to tell this tale from so many perspectives and a similarly amazing job of earning the trust of those who know the region and its tigers best. As the storyline progresses, the author also shares the region’s historic and political legacy as it relates to the Primorye forest so vital to the threatened Amur tigers. Truly, the tiger’s existence in the forest is woven far into the very culture as natives have worshipped and coexisted with these dangerous beasts for centuries - even routinely sharing their kills. However, Russian settlers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries brought hunters and soldiers who targeted the magnificent tigers for mass killing and greatly diminished their number. Now, many who live near poverty in the Primorye region have turned to hunting and poaching simply to survive, further endangering the tiger’s future.
Jon Vaillant’s exquisite language and the fascinating tale of the Amur tigers in the Russian Far East kept me spellbound throughout this volume. “The Tiger” is a fascinating read and a compelling environmental lesson.
Author John Vaillant’s first book is “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness and Greed”, which uses the story of a magnificent golden tree in the Queen Charlotte Islands to share the story of the native Haida people and their struggle against the white man’s plunder of natural resources in the Northwest. John has a “particular interest… [in] stories that explore collisions between human ambition and the natural world.”
The Cookbook Collector
by Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman’s delightful new novel, ‘The Cookbook Collector’ is the tale of two very different sisters. Set in 1999 (pre-9/11 at the height of the high-tech ‘bubble’), Emily is the organized, ambitious, financially successful CEO of a high-tech start-up company while her younger, dreamy and impetuous sister, Jess, is a half-hearted philosophy student and ‘tree-hugger’ who works part-time in an antiquarian book shop. Emily has a well-established relationship with another high-flying, dot-com entrepreneur, Jonathon, whose start-up is headquartered on the east coast while Jess seems destined to fall ‘head-over-heels’ into relationships without a future.
The title of the book comes from an extraordinary opportunity that comes along for George, the book shop owner, when he is given the chance to inventory - and to possibly purchase - a large, unique collection of antique cookbooks which he employs Jess to evaluate and inventory. Ultimately, this brings Jess into an unexpected closeness with her much older, rumpled, and long solitary employer who has always harbored tender feelings for her. In this novel, it not the magic of cooking as much as the magic of a shared exploration of this vast cookbook collection which opens up unexpected possibilities between Jess and her employer.
While Jess’s personal life takes many emotional turns, it is the drama that unfolds for Emily that is the most unexpected in the novel. When the ‘’ bubble bursts and tragedy hits close to home, it is Jess who becomes Emily’s rock for a time. The author does a wonderful job of blending many personal stories that surround the two sisters with revealing relationships and events that provide context to the primary story lines.
‘The Cookbook Collector’ is beautifully written and an easy, somewhat romantic, read that also poses some significant questions the reader will ponder long after its last chapter. Why do we collect? What do our personal collections and the spaces we create say about us? Can a collection of material things nourish us spiritually? Can such a collection at times isolate us from others or from the outside world? How does a collection become personal? Why does it feel so wonderful to be surrounded by things of beauty and meaning?
Allegra Goodman is the author of a number of other novels – ‘Kaaterskill Falls’, ‘Paradise Park’, ‘Intuition’, and ‘The Other Side of the Island.’ She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and children. I love this quote from Allegra. “These days I write while my four children are at school At times the year seems like one snow day, sick day, and staff day after another but somehow, slowly, my work gets done. I love my job. Each book teaches me something new about character and plot and structure. I am dedicating my life to learning how to tell a story.”
‘The Cookbook Collector’ is a lovely collection of personal stories that pose real questions about what is most meaningful and valuable in our lives.

Fall of Giants
by Ken Follett

   Readers who have read Ken Follett’s sweeping epics, “Pillars of the Earth” and “World Without End” know how well Mr. Follett weaves personal stories into immense historical dramas that enlighten our views of previous eras. Now, Follett has turned his considerable literary prowess to the 19th century in “Fall of Giants”, the first of the Century Trilogy. In this (another massive volume of 985 pages) the author explores the roots of the conflict that become World War I – and the consequences of that conflict on the 19th century with repercussions into the present day.
   In order to portray the major perspectives and allegiances that precipitated the conflict and influenced its direction, Follett’s novel follows the experiences of a Welch coal mining family and the earl who rules over them; a German aristocrat who secretly loves and marries a British society suffragette; and two Russian sons of a revolutionary father who was hanged for his views. By extension, we also view the world of the servants in the great houses of the powerful and see the war from the perspective of ground troops, intelligence officers, commanders, politicians, diplomats, and new immigrants to America. We see the desperate plight of the poor and, particularly, of women who struggle to survive while relegated to a lower rung on the pay scale and in society unless a fortunate marriage comes their way. We see the great contrasts between the wealthy and powerful and those who toil to survive while supporting the economy that makes such great wealth possible. Follett also used historical events to illustrate how well-intentioned movements can go tragically wrong.
   Interweaving memorable fictional characters with historical facts and actual historic players, Follett’s saga gives us a fresh understanding of the rising democracy movements, the Russian revolution, labor union struggles, working conditions of the lower classes and the cause of women’s suffrage. Students of history will also be interested in Follett’s detailed account of the political maneuvering and bungled opportunities that turn a small incident into a war that involves all of Europe and impacts nations around the world. Those who personally participate in the war illustrate the realities of life on the fronts and in the trenches.
   Why “Fall of Giants”? By the book’s end in 1924, the comfortable crowned heads of Europe are all removed from their positions of power and society has undergone huge change. Book two in the Century Trilogy, “The Winter of the World,” will follow the descendents of the five families introduced in “Giants” from the end of World War I to the Great Depression, World War II and, finally, The Cold War.
  “Fall of Giants” is a huge book but a compelling read that will keep you happily turning the pages on a long winter night. Don’t let its sheer size and scope cause you to hesitate – it is a great read and it offers insights for our day by providing a sweeping vista into western society’s not-too-distant past. This big book tells a very big story that will educate and enlighten you while it entertains.
   Ken Follett was only twenty-seven when he wrote the award-winning “Eye of the Needle”, which became an international bestseller. He has since written many successful novels. He lives with his family in London and Hertfordshire.