Memoir, it is said, is the art of subjective truth. Books like Tobias Wolff’s “This Boy’s Life” and Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” set the bar high, and sadly the memoir explosion that followed those titles was marked by pale imitations: survivor tales of dysfunctional families, abusive relationships and powerful addictions.
So when a memoir comes around that grabs a reader by the throat and touches the heart, it calls for celebration. That memoir is Cheryl Strayed's "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail," the story of her 1,100-mile solo hike from the Mojave Desert northward through California and Oregon, through the Cascades, to Washington State. She made the journey when she was just 26 years old, a few years after her young mother died of cancer and her own marriage fell apart.
Black bears, rattlesnakes, blazing heat, heavy snowfall and massive blisters are part of this journey's action, which Strayed recounts vividly and with wit. But more significant to "Wild" is Strayed's internal journey, and she brings readers into the dramas inside her head — her anxieties, frustrations and disappointments that have taken their toll and threatened to send her out of control.
While most memoirs are animated by the red-hot issues of the day, Strayed let the decades pass and the scars of her earlier life congeal. The result is an intimate portrait of a journey, one that she ended by finding joy in herself. She completes the memoir on this note:
"To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life — like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very present, so very belonging to me."
Elizabeth Taylor is the Tribune's literary editor.
•Cheryl Strayed waited two decades to write this book. What kind of book would it have been if she had written it at the end of the trek or just published her journals?
•Strayed's backpack, known as "Monster," is one of the wonderful metaphors in the book. What other objects does she bring or find on the journey? What do they represent?
•To lighten her load, Strayed burned nearly all the books she took on the hike, but she held onto one: the late poet Adrienne Rich's "The Dream of a Common Language." What made that collection so special to Strayed?
To say that Cheryl Strayed is an Internet advice columnist does not do her justice. "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" is a gob-smacking high, a brilliant reinvention of the Miss Lonelyhearts genre.
After toiling in anonymity as columnist for The Rumpus, an online magazine for nearly two years, Strayed recently revealed herself. This collection of poignant insights into the complexities of the human heart offers a form of radical empathy and inspired compassion from a fellow traveler — one who not only feels the pain of others but leads them toward light and art.
Extra credit question: How is the development of Strayed's character in "Wild" manifested in her "Dear Sugar" advice?
Come out and discuss
Discuss “Wild” and “Tiny Beautiful Things” with Tribune Literary Editor Elizabeth Taylor at the Printers Row Journal Book of the Month meeting. 6:30 p.m., July 18, Tribune Tower, 435 N. Michigan Ave.