Wild

mourik-web1I’ve loved Cheryl Strayed since before I knew who she was. While her work moved me profoundly, the name “Cheryl Strayed” meant nothing to me. To me (and countless others), she was simply “Sugar.”

“Dear Sugar” to be precise.

The now famous letter “The Truth That Lives There” was one of the very first I’d read, and I remember the way it shook me to my core. A collection of readers all looking for a way out, wondering if they deserved one, if they were right to want one, and instead of judgment or rationalizations, Sugar boldly says,

“Go, even though there is nowhere to go. Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay. Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough.” (Emphasis mine.)

In one letter I understood that readers spilled the darkest parts of their hearts to Sugar because Sugar would do the same. She’d talk about her past, her divorce, her parents’ divorce, her mother’s death and the rocky road it took to get her here, to you. Her words were mesmerizing. Her responses were always more than just advice; they felt like poetry. So who was this mysterious woman who could tell strangers baring their souls to her what they needed to hear all while baring her own as well?

Finally, in 2012 she revealed herself to us and the world as Cheryl Strayed.
In 2012 she released Wild.

I read Wild, Strayed’s debut memoir, in about three days, though “read” is putting it mildly. I devoured it.

Wild is the story of Strayed’s experiences on the Pacific Crest Trail—a 2,659-mile hike that winds its way from Mexico, through the Colorado Desert, over the Sierra Nevadas, all the way to Canada. Her decision to hike it is made almost on a whim. She sees a travel book in the grocery store and can’t stop thinking about it until before she has time to second-guess herself, she’s buying gear at REI and selling off her belongings in preparation for three solid months in the wilderness. Too little time to hike the whole distance, but enough to still be a mind-bending feat.

The real “why” behind it all is the most interesting part. Having just entered a particularly dark period of her life, Strayed is looking for answers anywhere she can find time. Instead of being a recent college grad with the world at her feet, she’s a young college dropout whose marriage has disintegrated, whose mother is dead from a sudden and aggressive cancer diagnosis, and whose self-destructive behavior has her spiraling downward fast.

In short? She’s lost and it’s clear that it’s the trail she hopes can ground her, whether she realized it at the time or not.

And so her adventure begins. As she takes one heavy step after another, stumbles on one obstacle after another, falters at one crossroad after another, Strayed uses her trademark style to put us there right alongside her. Her writing is effusive and lyrical and it never lets up, which made every moment of her journey a joy to read.

Her words wormed their way into my heart in just the same way that her responses would when she was Sugar. I felt like I was growing with her. It felt like we were in it together.

“Until now, I hadn’t even truly understood the world’s vastness—hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be—until each mile was beheld at walking speed.”

It’s hard to express just how much I loved this book. Watching Strayed go from this terrified and confused woman to someone braver and stronger and more confident and accepting of herself than she ever thought possible resonated with me profoundly. This book made me want to live. It made me proud of my own journeys. It made me feel a kinship with the author. It made me want to get out into the wild and breathe the same air she did.

I would read it again and again. Maybe one day I’ll even read it on the PCT. When I was done, anything seemed possible.

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Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

My baby loves me, I’m so angry
Anger makes me a modern girl
Took my money, I couldn’t buy nothin’
I’m sick of this brave new world

sleater-kinney

Corin, Carrie, & Janet, Lollapalooza 2006, the first time I saw them live

I was 18 and driving back to the ‘burbs when I first pressed play on a Sleater-Kinney album. It was 2005 and The Woods had just been released. I remember the screech and howl of the first track “The Fox” and how it was like nothing I’d ever heard before. I’d never listened to music like this, I didn’t know how to approach it. I knew I felt something, but I didn’t know if I liked it. I skipped ahead and I heard “Modern Girl” and that was that. I was hooked.

Sleater-Kinney stayed with me through college.
Sleater-Kinney got me through my anger.
Sleater-Kinney was there when I became the only version of me that actually liked herself.

When they reunited with a surprise album last year, I bought tickets to their Chicago show the same minute they went on sale. It was one of the best concerts of my entire life. Their presence lit the stage on fire.

25065629All of this goes to say that I am more or less the ideal audience for Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl.

I’ve never read a celebrity memoir (it’s been almost five years and I still haven’t finished Bossypants). I felt it smart to temper my expectations, as impossible as that seemed to be. But from the opening sentence, Brownstein smashes your expectations:

“I only wanted one thing on tour: to slam my hand in a door and break my fingers.”

By the end of the prologue, you already know what’s coming:

“Sleater-Kinney was my family, the longest relationship I had ever been in; it held my secrets, my bones, it was in my veins . . . And I was about to destroy Sleater-Kinney.”

Just like “Modern Girl,” by the time I read this far, that was that.
Hooked.

If you only know Brownstein from her work on Portlandia, I’m not sure I think this book is for you. Its slim 241 pages take you from her youth in the suburbs of Seattle to the college music scene in Olympia and through the rise, fall, and resurgence of Sleater-Kinney with nary a mention of Fred Armisen in sight.

And as much as this is Carrie Brownstein’s memoir, it’s also the story of the band and the music. I would never tell someone not to read it. I think I’m just having a hard time imagining how reading a detailed description the way “Dig Me Out” was written could mean very much without knowing what it sounds like. Though that might just be the fangirl in me talking.

Reading Hunger made me feel closer to an artist responsible for creating some of the most important music of my life. When she describes growing up, it was so easy to see myself in her:

“I resented parts of myself that were late to adopt coolness, late to learn—I wanted to have always possessed a savviness and sophistication, even though I clearly had neither.”

The desire to belong and to create and the frustration of trying to craft an image of yourself that actually feels like you all resonated deeply with me. The inside look at the Riot Grrl scene (a scene I always believed would have suited me wonderfully) was a peek behind the curtain that left me feeling thankful for and reinvigorated by all these amazing, smart, angry women.

I could keep going on, but I think it’s pretty clear that Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl was a slam dunk for me. It’s a must-read for every Sleater-Kinney fan and wannabe Riot Grrl. I don’t know if it’ll resonate anywhere near as strongly for those new to SK, casual fans of Portlandia, or general music-memoir readers, but thanks to Brownstein’s clear, thoughtful writing, I think it’ll still be worth their while.

Midnight in Mexico

When I was 16, whenever I thought about Mexico, I don’t think a single real image came to mind.

Selena. Tacos. Heat. Cancún.

Other approximations, but nothing real.

My high school was 30% Latino. My best friend at the time was Mexican. I had taken years of Spanish classes. And yet I didn’t seem to know a goddamn thing about the place.

Mexico was somewhere over there. Somewhere decidedly not here.

That was somewhere around 2003 when stories of Juárez’s murdered women and the violence of the cartels was creeping into the news. The stories only got worse as I went off to college, peaking somewhere around 2010 with 23,000 dead in just 3.5 years.

But what was the country really like? What was happening there and why?

The older I got, the more it felt like time to take the initiative to become less willfully ignorant, but I never knew where to start. Finally, last year I was able to find a list of reads that gave me a jumping off point, and with my reading goal set for 2015, what better time than now? I might finally start making sense of it all. I might finally learn something.

I decided to start with Alfredo Corchado’s Midnight in Mexico.

A reporter during one of the bloodiest periods of the war between the cartels, Alfredo Corchado receives a tip one night in 2007: in 24 hours, the cartels will kill an American journalist—Corchado’s source thinks it’ll be him. In this memoir, he recalls his mad search for the source of the threat as well as his internal struggle to reconcile two halves of himself: his Mexican heritage and his American upbringing. All the while continuing to report on the mounting violence and political upheaval.

A quick read, we get to peek at the layers of Corchado’s life as well as Mexican history. From Corchado’s childhood and his years of reporting in Mexico to Mexico’s shift from dictatorship to democracy and the bloody battles that came with it. It even touches upon the rise of El Chapo, leader of the largest criminal organization in Mexico, who was only arrested in February of last year.

I admit I had high hopes for this book. A memoir would be personal enough to give me the emotional connection I needed to start understanding a country I knew so little about. Not to mention the fact that Corchado’s story is gripping. And while the book was indeed fascinating and sad and maddening and honest, Corchado’s writing doesn’t really live up to the task of relaying it.

So often, I’d find his sentences clunky and the way he infused Spanish into his English writing frustrating instead of immersive. There would regularly be multiple pages where Corchado is relaying a conversation that clearly took place in Spanish, but since the bulk of the book is in English, he chose to write the dialogue in Spanish, immediately following every sentence or phrase with its English translation.

I still have a working knowledge of Spanish, and my goodness was this tedious to read. It was like reading every single sentence twice. Here’s a brief example from a scene in which Alfredo is arguing with his mother about the future of Mexico:

“‘Sólo Dios sabe,’ she’d replied, looking straight ahead. Only God knows.

‘Don’t underestimate God,’ my mother responded. ‘Dios es grande.’
‘Don’t underestimate the people,’ I retorted, and returned to eating barbecue beef grilled by Mundo.
My Mother shot me a look that said, ‘Ay, my Fredito, mi solecito. Ya no eres tan mexicano.’ Oh, my little sunshine, now you are naive as only an American can be.”

On its own, it’s not too troublesome. I definitely respect and agree with his desire to quote his family, friends, and sources in Spanish when they were speaking Spanish. The problem comes when he uses this same tactic four times in two pages. Then again on the page after that. Then four more times a page or two later. And again and again and again.

I would have preferred him to either write it all in English using punctuation to alert us when something was originally said in Spanish or, better yet, just write it in Spanish and trust his audience enough to be able to figure out the meaning through context clues. Or use footnotes if he’s that worried.

The flip-flopping back and forth was incredibly cumbersome in a book that was suffering from awkward phrasing and poor flow already.

It was this overall clunkiness that kept me from forming the emotional connection to the material I was craving. I wanted to feel utterly wrapped up in Corchado’s story, and I just couldn’t get there. Whether that’s entirely Corchado’s fault or whether his editor should be blamed is debatable, either way I was left unsatisfied.

But if anything can be said, reading Midnight in Mexico made me excited to read more about Mexico. To read more Latino authors. To read more Latino news. The book led me to more Mexican authors and reporters and ultimately to Francisco Goldman’s brilliant series in the New York Times on the missing 43 (a heartbreaking and brilliant bit of writing that I fully recommend to all if you missed it this past winter).

On a very basic level, Midnight works. It conveys the story, and it got me interested enough to want to learn more. If you’re new to the subject like I was, it’s not a bad place to start, but I’m sure there’s something better out there. I know I’ll be looking for it.