Let's face it -- we're all voyeurs. We love to peek in on other lives to observe human struggles, triumphs and heartaches. Whether your impulses tend toward empathy, or schadenfreude, or merely a detached bemusement, there's rarely anything more satisfying than a juicy memoir.
The form is particularly compelling when it gives us the chance to watch an ordinary person deal with exceptional circumstances. Oftentimes, unexpected events -- or even a chain of events -- bring about some inner crisis that forces a person to go in fascinating new directions. There's a chance for deep self-evaluation, in some cases, and perhaps even a sort of rebirth.
Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed is that type of memoir. The book is the story of the author's response to her mother's death from cancer and the subsequent collapse of Strayed's marriage due to her own unraveling, a downfall marked by lapses into adultery and heroin addiction. With her life a disaster, Strayed literally put herself on a different path by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, traveling 1,100 miles from California's Mojave Desert to the mountain forests of Washington State. Without any previous long-distance hiking experience, she made the trek solo, dealing with rattlesnakes, bears, heavy snowfall and intense loneliness and regret in the sort of spiritual quest that Jack Kerouac chronicled more than half a century ago in his much-acclaimed On the Road
"Wild is at the height of its power when Strayed confronts her demons with clear-eyed intensity, allowing for the heartbreaking messiness of life to be just that," writes reviewer Jessica Gelt in the Los Angeles Times. "In walking, and finally, years later, in writing, Strayed finds her way again. And her path is as dazzlingly beautiful as it is tragic." Ilana Teitelbaum, writing at the Huffington Post, calls the memoir "by turns harrowing, lyrical and funny" and says Strayed -- who is now 43, remarried and living in Portland, Ore. -- has achieved enough distance from her travails to give the writing the wry touch it needs. "Her restraint," Teitelbaum says, "makes the tragic moments all the more heart-rending." The New York Times' reviewer Dani Shapiro says Strayed's account is simply "a spectacular book" that is "at once a breathtaking adventure tale and a profound meditation on the nature of grief and survival."
When I realized that Strayed's three-month odyssey took place in 1995, I couldn't help but reflect on other events occurring during that time frame -- in particular, the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles that led to the worst urban riots in U.S. history at the end of April in 1992. The connection might not be noteworthy except that King, who just turned 47, also has a newly minted memoir, The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, co-authored by Lawrence J. Spagnola.
Released on the 20th anniversary of the violence, the book tells the story of King's life and offers us his take on a watershed moment in American history -- one that left more than 50 people dead and much of the city in charred ruins. (Like many Southern California journalists, I was covering the chaos, pounding out a story while rioters pummeled the third-floor windows of the Los Angeles Times building with rocks, and later navigating streets flooded by fire hoses.)
I can't help marveling at how different the two authors' experiences were -- Strayed, a grieving and troubled young woman from Minnesota taking off into the wilderness, and King, a young man from the metropolis, the son of an alcoholic father, dealing with his demons by fleeing the cops in a high-speed freeway chase, only to be beaten and thrust into the public spotlight. About all that Strayed and King have in common are the raw elements of dramatic memoir: a painful past and a struggle for some sense of peace.
Like Strayed, King has had time to sort through what happened to him, and what he made happen through his own poor choices. King "is at his best when he shares the personal details of his story," says Kirkus Reviews. "In a particularly revealing moment, King describes disguising himself in a Bob Marley wig in an attempt to observe the riots" without being recognized.
King's account says he is reconciled to what happened ("It changed things," he says. "It made the world a better place") and has forgiven the four LAPD officers who beat him. Unlike Strayed, however, who completely escaped her problem-filled world on those remote mountain trails, King does not display evidence of any newfound strength or transformation. As Kurt Streeter and Mitchell Landsberg blogged on the Los Angeles Times website after interviewing him, King seems still burdened, like "a shell-shocked survivor of war." He has had numerous run-ins with the law, has spent all of the $3.8 million settlement he received because of the beating -- some of it for a down payment on his home in Rialto -- and continues to drink, despite calling himself a recovering addict.
"What emerges from both the book and the man," Streeter and Landsberg write," is the picture of someone who has spent two decades coping, not always very well, with the blows that police inflicted on the night of March 3, 1991, and with the notoriety that came later."
Yes, memoirs are fascinating. I'll have more later.
Meanwhile, what are your favorite memoirs? Share your recent reads in the comment field below.