What I Mean When I Say That WILD is My Favorite Book

Last year, I read Cheryl Strayed’s WILD, and it immediately displaced any other book as my favorite. If I could give it my top five favorite spots, I would. When I read WILD for the first time, the first chapter grabbed me right in the heart. I cried for a long time. I put down the book for weeks. I picked it up and read more, and cried again. This happened the second time I read it, and the third. It’s still hard for me to think at length about this book without tearing up.

On one level, I connected with young Cheryl as she breaks from her life and starts what seems less like a new chapter than a new book entirely. After I graduated both college and a terrible depression, I quit my job, moved to New York, and decided I needed to stand on my own and chase my dreams. And I have. It’s worked out really well for me, on the whole, which I know isn’t always the case. I know how lucky I am, and when Cheryl succeeded, she wrote about it in a way that I identified with.

But for every time that I felt close to the story for our similarities, I felt my heart cleaved in two when reading about Cheryl’s losses and failures. In college, an on-and-off serious relationship nearly destroyed me wholly, in ways that are so similar and so different from hers. I’ve also struggled with my relationship with my family, primarily my mother, for the last decade, to the point where only in the last year or two have we really been able to start healing our relationship and have the closer bond we both want.

My mom and I don’t usually talk about how things make us feel in relation to each other. We talk a lot about food. We send each other pictures and recipes over text and Facebook. We talk about books sometimes, since she wants to get back into reading and I can give her strong recommendations. We talk about what we’ve been up to lately, when we do talk on the phone about once every week or so. Usually we call when there’s been something momentous to discuss, but otherwise we don’t have much that fills the blank of “What else?”, the unspoken family motto. It goes without saying (though we do) that we love each other, but we talk about how we do what we’re doing, rather than how we feel about what we’re doing. We just don’t talk about feelings that much.

It’s not that we don’t love each other. We do, intensely. But we love each other in a different way than my boyfriend’s family does, and from your family does, and anyone else’s, probably. It would likely be appropriate to quote Tolstoy here, but I wouldn’t say that my family is unhappy. I would say that there have been events in everyone’s lives that have drained intense emotion from us, drawn it out in such a way that we no longer have the strength to bring it to the surface with regularity. We are happy, but that happiness is tempered by the unhappiness we’ve wrought on each other and that’s been wrought on us. No one is really to blame. That’s just how it is.

It’s not bad. It’s just different. It’s just how we are. I used to think I wanted to talk to my family every day and share all of our emotions, but as I’ve gotten older and thought on end about the relationships in my extended family, I don’t think that’s in the cards for us. And I’m okay with that now, for some reasons, but many of them are that that’s not how my family shows its love. We do talk and show our live by sharing things we know our family members will like. We’ve always been big on gift holidays because that’s how we express things. Mere words tend to lose meaning with us, given our history with empty conversation, and so we like to back them up when we can.

Something I’ve learned in the past year is that my mom and I have a growing bond over cooking and recipe sharing. Since I started living alone, like an adult, I’ve started taking a strong interest in learning how to really cook, and not just from basic recipes. I always took it for granted that my mom was good at cooking, but now I know that it’s one of her great loves. More and more, it’s one of mine, too—and I’ve learned that I’m good at it. When I visited over Christmas last year, we cooked together almost every day, learning from each other and spending time reading cookbooks and recipes together. These are the bonds I make with my mother, and they mean more to me than almost anything. I think she knows that.

But it matters when I read WILD and can’t get through the mom chapters without having a thorough cry. When I first read this book, I knew that I didn’t want to miss out on this relationship in my own life, especially considering how fraught with tension it’s been over the last decade of our lives. Maybe I don’t have what some people would now consider an ideal relationship with my parents, but it works for us. Over the last ten years, we’ve all learned a lot about what depression means and how it can affect a family dynamic in almost every way. It hasn’t been easy on anyone, and that compounded on extended family issues has been even harder.

My mom’s family has a history of Alzheimer’s disease. I remember going to see my grandmother, my mom’s mom, in a nursing home, and watching my mom be vulnerable in a way that doesn’t happen very often, in ways that I’m not sure I’ve seen since. I remember my grandmother, my Nana, when she was in full control of her faculties and making me elaborate birthday cakes when we’d visit my mom’s small hometown, and as I grow older, thinking about how the slow, sad change must have affected my mom and her sisters affects me, as I translate it to my own possible future. I can more accurately imagine the reality of the future, and it scares me. The older I get, the more afraid I am that this could—and likely will—happen to me, and I’m afraid of wasting opportunities. It’s especially hard since I live 1500 miles from home right now, but we do what we can.

I think sometimes about what my life will be like when my parents die. It’s very upsetting and I don’t like to think about it, but I do. I wonder how I will feel, how my relationship between my brother and I will be different, and what it will mean for my life. I also know that nothing can prepare me for how I will feel, but now that I’m older, I feel like I have a better handle on things than I used to. Or, at least, I can understand what the reality is, especially regarding mental illness.

When I read WILD, it feels like I’m preparing myself a little better for the eventuality. I sometimes don’t think we talk about grief enough, especially in regard to parental death, and it’s something that my generation is starting to face as a matter of eventual course rather than by horrible, untimely accident. And that scares me. It scares me that there’s little I can really do to fend off my fears. I wonder if I’ll dissolve into nothingness again, and hope that I won’t. I wonder if I’ll need to make a major life change, and hope that I won’t. I wonder if my life will ever be the same again, and I know that it won’t.

No, I’m not consumed by these fears, but as someone who’s always needed to prepare for major changes, sometimes it scares me that this isn’t something you can ever really be fully prepared for. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who have already had to face this, whose lives were altered too soon. We can never be ready, really.

Cheryl Strayed is known for her raw voice, one that holds you together while you work through every day tragedies. Nothing that’s happened to her is so crazy that it hasn’t happened to anyone else, but what’s different about her writing is that she wants you to experience your grief. She wants you to know that it’s okay to have a wide range of feelings about things that happen to you. Her long-running (now defunct) advice column for The Rumpus, Dear Sugar, is one that will change your life if you let it.

There’s no real way to end this except to say that my former book club didn’t fall in love with this book the way I did, and for a book that affected me as strongly as this one, I can’t understand why. Cheryl’s return from the brink brought up feelings I thought long buried and inspired new thoughts, even new fears. At its simplest, it could be called a quarter-life crisis, I guess. But really, for me, it was about understanding what it means to be catapulted into adulthood in the way that we all are.

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Books I Loved in 2013

In 2012, I read 26 out of my Goodreads goal of 60 books, which I found to be a huge disappointment. In 2013, I adjusted my expectations to 35 books, thinking I didn’t know if I’d be able to really kick it into gear. However, I had to up my goal multiple times, and it ended up at 65 by the end of the year.

In 2013, though, I read 68 of my 65 books, a fact I am over the moon about, and here they are for your perusal, in reverse chronological order of when I read them. Apparently Goodreads doesn’t have a good way to visually present the titles in a way that’s easy to put here, so this is what we’ve got. However, I think I read much better books in the second half of the year than in the first, so I’m not too heartbroken over it.

Of all these books, though, these are the ones that I loved this year, my 2013 life changers.

Wild // Cheryl Strayed
If you’d told me, as my friend Anna did earlier this year, that this book would change my thinking and become my favorite book of all time, I would have, as I did, secretly rolled my eyes and put it on a future to-read list, maybe. The recollection of the implosion of Strayed’s life and her subsequent hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, however, is incredible and absolutely changed the way I think about some things, notably my relationship with my own mother. I think everyone should read this book, without hesitation.

Panic // Lauren Oliver
Okay, this may be a little cheating, since this is doesn’t come out until April, but I read it in December and loved it. As you can see, I read Oliver’s Delirium trilogy earlier in the year, but I think this is her best work yet. It’s set in the present world, and Oliver really nails the emotions, the highs and lows of high school, and sucks you into the apparent immediacy of the game. Anyway, if you like YA, pre-order it now.

Blood, Bones and Butter // Gabrielle Hamilton
This food memoir blew me away–I guess this year I was really into lady memoirs, since I put several of them on my best-of list, but I loved this. Hamilton chronicles not only her journey to opening her restaurant Prune in New York, but her family life, the two being intertwined in a way that’s both wonderful and tragic.

League of Denial // Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

When this title was announced at work, I immediately knew I would fall in love with it. I’m someone who grew up living college football, and this book made me cry, laugh, and most importantly, learn. This isn’t a book about banning football. The authors write for ESPN and love football. This is a book exposing the way the NFL has ignored brain damage in football for thirty years, and looking for a way we can change the system without getting rid of it.

Five Days at Memorial // Sheri Fink
This title tells the story of the first five days after Hurricane Katrina at a major hospital in New Orleans, in which some doctors were accused of euthanizing patients. This book interviews dozens and dozens of employees, patients, and relatives about their experience without making accusations, but I would categorize this as another life-changer. It gives us previously unknown insight into a dark and unclear moral situation, one that seems unfathomable but that did, in fact, happen, as told by those who witnessed it.

Tiny Beautiful Things // Cheryl Strayed
Yes, another Cheryl Strayed. However, this one is a compilation of her columns from when she wrote the Dear Sugar advice column for The Rumpus (which everyone should be reading, though Dear Sugar is discontinued), and the way Strayed includes her personal life in her advice and stories is heartrendingly beautiful. In fact, now that I’ve read Wild, I’d really like to reread TBT since I have a better idea of what was happening. I’m not usually an advice column person, but this is really something else.

Cinder // Marissa Meyer
Futuristic dystopian YA with a partially cyborg protagonist? Okay. Add in that it’s the first in a series of fairytale retellings, all of which work together in a plot that would stand alone even if it weren’t retellings, and I’m totally sold. Seriously, great fun, great writing, and the third book in the series comes out early this year. Do it to it.

Parasol Protectorate series // Gail Carriger
I started reading this series last year, and read the three final books in the five-book series when I bought the whole series for Kindle early in the year. This whole series is best described as Victorian supernatural steampunk comedy, which I know sounds ridiculous, but trust me when I say that this is one of the very few books I’ve read that had me laughing out loud every few pages. The characters are distinct, both lovable and hateable, and this is the most fun I’ve had with genre literature in a while–perhaps because it straddles multiple genres, creating a story that almost anyone can enjoy. Plus, Carriger has a YA series Finishing School, the first title being Etiquette & Espionage, which is set in the same world with some overlapping characters, if that’s more your thing.

Other honorable mentions are the upcoming Red Rising (Pierce Brown, out 1/28), Coming Clean (Kimberly Rae Miller), Orange is the New Black (Piper Kerman), Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell), The Divorce Papers (Susan Rieger, out 3/18), Beautiful Ruins (Jess Walter), Born Standing Up (Steve Martin), The Madness Underneath (Maureen Johnson), Finnikin of the Rock (Melina Marchetta), and This is How You Lose Her (Junot Diaz).

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Why did I read so much this year? I know of a few certain reasons, one of them being that I read exclusively on the subway (and I have a 40-minute one-way daily commute), and the other being that I got a Kindle from my parents for Christmas last year. Those daily Kindle deals can be really good, people. I’m sure there are other erasons, but those are the two that I can point to with certainty. Physical books are great, and our shelves at home are overflowing with beautiful hardcovers (especially since I started my new job), but for me there’s not much that beats the simplicity of an ereader. It’s much easier to read a tablet on a crowded subway than it is a bulky hardcover (and I don’t bend my books), so I’m able to read more than one book in a week, if it goes quickly (which it obviously did this year).

If we aren’t friends on Goodreads, please add me so we can keep each other accountable this year, and let me know what you read last year that was good and what you’re most looking forward to this year. I’m always looking for recommendations!