Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage, was one of 2012's biggest and best books. Even Oprah thought so—she made it her first pick when she relaunched her book club. With its clear-eyed portrayal of Strayed's all-consuming sorrow and loneliness, and the incredible story of her (some might say foolhardy) determination to seek answers in an unforgiving landscape, Wild was our readers' #4 book of the year (and #2 on the BookPage editors' own Best of 2012 list).
Strayed's memoir encompasses so many different themes—grief, adventure, the healing power of nature, the journey to forgiveness and growth, discovering a community of like-minded misfits—that each reader takes away something different. If you're longing for something in a similar vein, try one of the following:
Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Like Wild, Let's Take the Long Way Home is a heartbreaking but beautifully told memoir of living through loss. When Gail Caldwell met Caroline Knapp, the two formed a quick, deep bond over such shared experiences as the joys and frustrations of writing, long walks with their beloved dogs and their self-destructive, alcoholic pasts. Knapp was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2002 and died a few short months later; Caldwell's grief over the loss of her friend knocked her flat. Her book is a powerful testament to a close friendship and the person she has become in its wake.
Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
Laura Bell's life has taken many unexpected turns. After graduating college in the '70s, she had a hard time figuring out who, or what, she wanted to be. So she turned to what she knew to be real and true—her love of animals and the land—and moved to Wyoming to become a sheepherder. It was not an easy job, especially for a young woman, but she learned to face her failures and celebrate her strengths, all the while reveling in the harsh splendor of the Western landscape. Over the years, she turned to different jobs (forest ranger, masseuse) and different people for companionship, surviving divorce and agonizing loss along the way. Inspiring in the best way, Bell's memoir chronicles a lifetime of learning how to be herself.
Townie by Andre Dubus III
The working-class neighborhoods of Lowell, Massachusetts, are no place for a young boy to admit to any weakness. In such an environment, Andre Dubus III grew up poor and, by age 11, the child of an acrimonious divorce. After years of enduring taunts and violence against his family, he fought back, transforming himself into a strong, vicious boxer and brawler. Eventually, he turned to writing as a way to lift himself out of misery and the dead-end life he was living, and also to untangle his relationship with his father after a serious injury. Light reading it is not, but readers who loved Wild for its unflinching look at Strayed's sad and troubled family will appreciate the portrait of love and loneliness that Dubus paints in Townie.
Fire Season by Philip Connors
Philip Connors has spent many summers as a fire lookout in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico, a job that allows him to attune himself deeply to the natural world around him. Though the work is not as physically demanding as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, it requires long hours of solitude and the close, thorough observation of the forest. With nothing but the sights and sounds of the woods to distract him, Connors can achieve a sort of meditative peace that lends itself well to the daily practice of writing. When he observes that natural fires (caused by lightning strikes) are often beneficial, even necessary, to the survival of the forest's ecosystem, readers will realize that the truths he uncovers on the mountain may have meaning in their own lives as well.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
If you're looking for a lighter take on the experience of long-distance hiking, Bill Bryson's modern classic A Walk in the Woods is essential reading. Like Strayed, Bryson is not exactly prepared for the rigors of the journey when he sets out to hike the Appalachian Trail, and his bumbling efforts and dry humor make for an irresistible combination. Along the way, he learns about the history and allure of the AT and meets a number of curious characters—including his traveling companion, a cranky, monosyllabic and somewhat rundown friend from his high school days.
Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs by Heather Lende
Heather Lende, columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, has been compared to writers such as Anne Lamott and Annie Dillard for her gentle but deep-seated spirituality and her love of the natural world—in this case, the mountainous beauty of her Alaska home. In this collection of essays and observations, Lende writes with grace and humor about challenges and triumphs both personal and communal, and captures the spirit of community that infuses her small town. Like Strayed, Lende struggles with big questions, and finds inspiration in the beautiful but unforgiving landscape around her.
Looking for more great book suggestions? Check out the rest of our "what to read next" posts, or share your own recommendations in the comments.
Valentine's Day, Schmalentine's Day. Inspired by Daniel Handler's new novel, Why We Broke Up, I decided to come up with a list of books to read if you just ended a romantic relationship.
Why We Broke Up, a 2012 Printz Honor Book and BookPage's Children's Top Pick for January, is the story of a breakup told through the items Minerva collected while she was dating Ed. In BookPage, Heather Seggel described it as "a beautiful story, but also soul food for dark times."
What is your soul food for dark times? Let us know in the comments. (And share your own breakup stories on the Why We Broke Up Tumblr page!)
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (Harper)
This deliciously long novel makes for excellent reading if you're going through a breakup—or if you're still looking for The One—because it shows you how life can change in a single moment. (So perk up, why don't you—who knows who you're going to run into on that subway!)
Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell (Random House)
Some people might think I'm crazy for recommending this tearjerker to a person going through a breakup, but I have my reasons: This is an engrossing story of a powerful friendship between two women, and it can be refreshing to read a book that portrays a meaningful, non-romantic relationship. The memoir is about how Caldwell became friends with Caroline Knapp, and what happens after Caroline is diagnosed with terminal cancer (no spoilers; you know from page one). I don't think I've ever cried so hard during a book, so if you're looking for catharsis . . .
The Lover's Dictionary by David Levithan (FSG)
From A-Z, The Lover's Dictionary tells the story of a relationship through dictionary entries. (Example: Fluke (n.), “The date before the one with you had gone so badly—egotist, smoker, bad breath—that I’d vowed to delete my profile the next morning. Except when I went to do it, I realized I only had eight days left in the billing cycle. So I gave it eight days. You emailed me on the sixth.”) It'll make you feel wistful, sad and hopeful about the search for love.
Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner (Simon & Schuster)
Jennifer Weiner's debut novel had its 10th anniversary in the spring of 2011, and it's just as funny and empowering as ever. What happens when a guy breaks up with a girl—and then writes a magazine column called "Loving a Larger Woman"? If anything, this hilarious book will make you feel good your ex didn't go to a national mag with your story (let's hope). More than likely, it'll make you feel happy to have a new friend in heroine Cammie Shapiro.
MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel Bertsche (Ballantine)
This memoir is about a 20-something woman who moved to Chicago to be with her husband, then realized she was missing an important slice of the pie of her life: a best friend. If you're sick of reading about romantic dates, you'll love this heartfelt and charming story of the search for true friends. (And hey, if you don't have the perfect significant other, maybe you'll remember that a BFF is pretty darn significant in its own right.)
What Was I Thinking?: 58 Bad Boyfriend Stories, edited by Barbara Davilman and Liz Dubelman (St. Martin's)
The title here says it all. These funny (and eye roll-inducing) bad boyfriend stories will remind you that you're not the only one who's had a lightbulb moment that made you realize he's just not Mr. Perfect. You'll no doubt start to think of your own breakup story as fodder for happy hour with your best friend—not cause for agony.
Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak: By Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Larry Smith (Harper Perennial)
Perhaps your breakup will lead to creative expression: How would you describe your breakup in six words? The examples here range from the sweet and sad ("She owns my heart, always will") to the funny and terrifying ("He posted our sex tape online").
Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics by Michael Barson (Harper)
Because sometimes love is agonizing and that's just the way it is. We interviewed Michael Barson about his book on 1940s and 1950s romance comics, and my favorite answer responded to the question: Is love always agonizing? He says, "In my experience, yes. Because if it isn’t you that’s doing the agonizing, then the other person probably is. The real question is, would we really have it any other way? The empirical evidence of the past 100 years suggests the answer is no."
As part of our Best Books of 2010 coverage, our editors weigh in on some of their personal favorites from the list.
Gail Caldwell's memoir of friendship, Let's Take the Long Way Home, was a big hit in the BookPage office this year. (In fact, not a single one of us was able to read it without crying.) It's not only a stunning exploration of the bonds of friendship and the way that those relationships evolve over time; it's also a beautiful tribute to Caldwell's friend, the writer Caroline Knapp (best known for Drinking: A Love Story), who died of lung cancer in 2002.
Caldwell and Knapp first met after a mutual friend, a dog trainer, told them they should get to know each other. They were both writers, both utterly devoted to their dogs, and before long, it became clear that they had another trait in common: They were both recovering alcoholics.
In just under 200 pages, Caldwell delves into her friendship with Knapp, and the depth of her grief after Knapp's death, with an insight and intensity I have rarely seen elsewhere. I could throw a raft of adjectives at her prose—sharp, luminous, haunting, joyful—but I can't hope to capture the precise qualities that make reading this memoir such a profound experience. Suffice it to say that I was a different person when I put it down, having witnessed the best part of human nature: the ability to love our friends, wildly and fully, for all of their flaws as well as their strengths, and to allow ourselves to be loved in return.
Read an interview with Gail Caldwell in BookPage.
Browse BookPage’s Best of 2010 coverage.
We're celebrating memoirs published in 2010 in today's edition of BookPageXTRA. A few of our favorites (pictured above) are:
Marriage and Other Acts of Charity by Kate Braestrup
Breath by Martha Mason
Let's Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt
Street Shadows by Jerald Walker
Dead End Gene Pool by Wendy Burden
What are your favorite memoirs from 2010?