Tag Archives: nonfiction

A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard (2011)

19 Sep

A Stolen Life is an incredibly difficult book to review (although nowhere near the difficulty its author faced in writing it).  In this memoir, Dugard recounts and reflects on her kidnapping and eighteen years of imprisonment and repeated rape by Phillip Garrido, which was assited by his wife Nancy Garrido. The usual rules for reviewing books just can’t apply.  When reviewing a book, I usually consider how convincing or exciting the plot is, and how skillful the author is with language.  Here, however, I don’t have the heart to analyze Dugard’s prose.  She’s survived a nightmare.  She’s bravely sharing it with the world, both as part of her healing, and because she has realized that the Garridos do not deserve her silence.

What was even more striking than the inhumanity of the Garridos was the persistent incompetence of the California police and parole board.  There were countless opportunities for Jaycee to be discovered and rescued from her hell.  Only when Garrido, in the throes of his delusions, affirmatively walked into the police and made all kinds of crazy statements to them did they bother to take a second look.  In 2010, in recognition of its massive failing and potentially limitless civil rights action exposure, the State of California approved a $20 million settlement to Dugard. After reading her memoir, I believe that is only a drop in the bucket of her suffering.

What most impressed me about Dugard was the bright tone of her memoir, despite her suffering.  Despite the dark conditions, she remained full of hope.  Her love for her two daughters is inspiring and heartwarming.  She was impregnated by Garrido at ages 14 and 17, and she delivered those daughters with no medical attention, in Garrido’s backyard.  She cared for her daughters with love and tenderness, she was devoted to educated them, despite she herself only having a fifth grade education.  I would be afraid that her children would be dark reminders of Garrido, but to her they are no such thing.  She loves them deeply.

It’s hard for me to decide whether I recommend this book.  I picked it out of curiosity.  I’m a little ashamed that I am curious about someone else’s terrible suffering. Dugard is an inspiration for everyone– to care about the safety of our communities, to ask questions when something seems amiss, and to maintain an outlook of hope and compassion.  I wish for nothing but the best to her and her daughters.

Wild, Cheryl Strayed (2012)

6 Sep

Even with all the buzz surrounding this book, I wasn’t planning on reading it.  I had no particular reason.  I usually do like memoirs and nonfiction, but Wild didn’t make it on my “To Read” list.  Then I learned that Cheryl Strayed will be a keynote speaker at next month’s Pennsylvania Conference for Women , and decided it would be a shame to hear her speak without having read her book. So I picked it up. And read it in about 3 days.

This is the summary from Strayed’s own website:

A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again. At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she’d lost everything when her mother died young of cancer. Her family scattered in their grief, her marriage was soon destroyed, and slowly her life spun out of control. Four years after her mother’s death, with nothing more to lose, Strayed made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker–indeed, she’d never gone backpacking before her first night on the trail. Her trek was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone. Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and intense loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.

Oprah is OBSESSED with this book.  She picked it as the kickoff novel for her 2.0 book club.  While the novel itself truly does live up to the hype, the only ebook version you can get right now is the Oprah book club version, which includes thoughtful book club questions, as well as footnotes containing Oprah’s VAPID and USELESS feedback.  There weren’t too many of Oprah’s notes, but the content was of those notes was so meaningless that it infuriated me.  Most of her notes were to the effect of “Isn’t that passage just amazing?” I could have just quit reading them, but then I would have felt like I was skipping over parts of the book, so I stupidly read all those stupid little Oprah notes.  (I like Oprah just fine. I do NOT, however, like my book to be interrupted with trite additions.)

This is a book you can really sink your teeth into.  Although my praise does not reach Oprah’s manic level, I can certainly see why she and so many others love Wild so much.  Although I have not faced the struggles and heartbreak Strayed was carrying when she set out on the trail, her journey was immensely relatable.  I saw many parallels between her hike and my marathon training (some 7 years ago) in her struggle to just keep putting one foot in front of another, and losing toenail after toenail, and the progression from “there’s no way I can finish this” to “wow, I’m really doing this,” to “I am going to FINISH this if it kills me.”  Danger and uncertainty are not uncommon on the Pacific Crest Trail, and Strayed kept a cool head and a logical approach throughout her entire trek.  Strayed does not wallow, nor does she wax sickeningly optimistic.  She takes things as they come, and tackles hurdle after hurdle. 

Strayed is also a skillful writer.  Her prose was beautiful and flowing, the novel a delight to read, not only for the plot but also for the language.

Strayed inspires me to go do big things.  I’m certainly not a hiker, but now I want to lace up and tackle some mountains.  Or maybe start a nonprofit project that CHANGES THE WORLD.  Or write a novel that alters the landscape of literature as we know it.  Whatever the harebrained project, Strayed has inspired me that with a whole lot of elbow grease and a little bit of luck, I can make it happen.


Bachelor Number One, Mishka Shubaly (2012)

29 Aug

I stumbled upon this book browsing through the Kindle Owners Lending Library (a feature of Amazon Prime that lets you borrow one book for free per month, and advertises itself as offering thousands of titles, but unfortunately most of them suck).

This is Shubaly’s third Kindle Single, and he has a hand for writing fun and light novellas.  Apparently he has had a kind of insane life, full of drinking, drugs, and getting shipwrecked.  He writes these shorts about the (mis)adventures he has found himself in.  They’re a little pessimistic and self-depricating, but completely entertaining.  I love the accomplishment of plowing through a book in one or two evenings.  Shubaly’s writing is fun, and makes me feel like some genius speed reader (the whole thing is maybe like 100 pages).

Bachelor Number One recounts Shubaly’s turn at eligibility for a television dating show.  The book is focused on the absurdity of the whole audition process, and is rather funny (although not entirely surprising).  Unfortunately, right when the book is really starting to pick up steam is where the whole thing ends.  And not “ends” like in “leaves a cliffhanger for a sequel” but “ends” as in “the bottom falls out of the story and its done.” I would have liked it to go a bit longer, but it is a book about his life after all, and sometimes life doesn’t give you the plotline you’re looking for.

Although summer reading lists are quickly coming to a close, Shubaly’s a shoo-in if you need something light to read on the beach (you lucky dog, you), or on an airplane.

Outliers (2008)

30 Sep

Sandy and I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” on CD on our long drive to and from Philly.  In Outliers, Gladwell examines incredibly successful people, and explores what, beyond innate talent, has led them to be so incredibly successful.  We’re not talking about “has a good job and is making a good salary” successful, Gladwell is more concerned with the Bill Gates and The Beatles level of success.

The premise of Outliers boils down to: Incredible success is made up of (1) talent, (2) hard work, and (3) access to the right kind of opportunities to lead to that success.  Bill Gates as a child, for example, had a passion for programming, but also access to a computer which was highly unusual for a schoolkid in 1968, and was also exploring programming at a time where there was still a lot of that territory to be explored and developed.

I enjoyed Gladwell’s deconstruction of the path to success for Gates, the Beatles, Mozart, and others.  His theories are all straightforward and make sense.  Of course you can have all the innate talent to be a prodigy oboe player, but if you have no access to an oboe, and therefore can’t put in oboe practice time, obviously your future as an oboe prodigy will never come to fruition.

Gladwell’s weaknesses in Outliers are that he overwhelmingly relies on anecdata.  Aside from short the discussion of some statistics related to the month of birth of Canadian hockey players, the rest of his book is case studies.  I don’t know how Gladwell’s theories could be objectively tested, but I felt like Gladwell should have had more numbers and figures, or at least broader support.  Gladwell also relies too heavily on absolutes.  In a section exploring how cultural backgrounds fashion our actions (which honestly felt a little out of place in the context of the book’s purpose) Gladwell repeatedly insists “we must take cultural influences into account”, and essentially insists that extreme success cannot exist outside his formula.  The New York Times speared Gladwell for these weaknesses, but I probably would have been satisfied if he just used “should” instead of “must” more.

On one hand, Outliers was incredibly depressing to me.  It made me feel helpless in my own success (or lack thereof), by making success so heavily reliant on access to unique opportunities.  On the other hand, it made me feel more secure in not being a prodigy in something or another.  My lack of Bill Gates level success isn’t for lack of effort or intelligence, but for lack of those lucky opportunities.

Gladwell is an engaging storyteller, and did an excellent job of bringing his case studies to life.  He also has a nice, soothing voice which made his reading of this book on CD very enjoyable.  I recommend this book as a good poolside nonfiction, but it will leave you wanting more if you are seeking hard academic writing.