"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

"You're not allowed to say anything about books because they're books and books are, you know, God." - Nick Hornby

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review #9: The Queen's Fool, by Philippa Gregory

The Queen's Fool is one of those books that sat on my bookshelf for awhile, getting passed over time and again for something else. I don't know if it was the cover (it does look a little romance-y) or the blurb on the back, but it never really jumped out and demanded to be read. Then one day, I found myself reaching for it, and I couldn't put it down.

Set during the tumultuous years after King Edward's death in the sixteenth century, the novel tells the story of Hannah Green, a young Jewish girl who escaped Spain and the Inquisition with her father, but not her mother, who was executed before they left. Hannah is hired as a fool for the young and inexperienced Queen Mary, and is immediately swept in to the intrigue that surrounds the palace and the royal court. Half in love with Robert Dudley, one of the palace consorts, unsure of her place - and safety - in the court, forced to keep her father's profession as a printer secret, forced to keep her identity as a Jew secret, and tempted to defect to Elizabeth's court, Hannah's loyalty to Mary is tested at every turn.

I'm not a sixteen-century English historian - my knowledge of that era is limited to what I can vaguely remember from junior year literature, a handful of movies, and some trashy romance novels - but Gregory paints Tudor London with such a vivid brush that I found myself wanting to learn more about these characters, these kings and queens and consorts and fools and spies who really existed. And that, I think, is the mark of a great story.

Review #8: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

One of my closest friends hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) a few years ago. She's an experienced hiker; she did the Appalachian Trail a few years prior to that. (And we're talking through-hike. All eleventy million miles of it. Both the AT and the PCT. This is something I would never do. I don't pee outside, let alone hike. I'm not really sure how it is we're friends.) Anyway, my hiker friend happened to be visiting while I was reading Wild, and I asked her whether she'd read it, what she thought of it. She paused for a moment, gathered her thoughts, and then said, "I liked the book. I'm not sure I liked her, though." And that sums up my feelings about this memoir pretty succinctly.

Cheryl Strayed weaves a good story. She knows how to grab her reader from the beginning by starting out with a story of the forest literally swallowing her boot, leaving her stuck in the woods with nothing but crappy camp sandals, which are little more than knock off Tevas you can pick up at a gas station. Hardly conducive to hiking fifteen miles a day. With this opening anecdote, the reader realizes that Cheryl is a mess, both literally and figuratively.

Reconstructed from her trail journals, Strayed bounces back and forth from her journey to the events that led her to take those first steps in California. She details the tragic death of her mother at 45, the demise of her marriage, the actions that brought about her divorce, her struggle with drugs (heroin - this girl doesn't mess around), and her general feeling of being directionless. She describes the PCT, its wildness and unpredictability, her backpack Monster and the PCT itself almost becoming characters in their own right. Interestingly, it's the other people she meets on the trail - and who only appear for brief moments - that are the most brightly painted, not her family or her friends or her ex-husband, all of whom are written about pretty extensively.

I found Strayed difficult to sympathize with, but perhaps that's the thirty-something in me losing patience with the twenty-something Cheryl. I was shocked at her unpreparedness. This is a girl who had camped but never hiked, who did little to no research beyond buying a book and talking to people at REI, and who walked in to the woods with no direction, no plan, and no money. Perhaps that was the point, but she was so unprepared that, quite frankly, I'm a little surprised she survived. Luckily, and I wish she had spent more time on this, several people helped her out along the way, and by that I mean, taught her what she needed to bring, gave her food, helped her with shelter, and generally did things that kept her alive. 

Wild is touted as a journey from lost to found on the PCT, and I know without a doubt that she was lost when she went in to the woods. But I'm not sure she's as found as she thinks she is. Maybe none of us are.

Not Writing...

...my reviews. I've been reading, I swear, but actually writing? Turns out I'm not good at staying on top of that.

So I wrote two reviews today, and hopefully (hopefully hopefully hopefully), I'll get back on track.

With reviews and, you know, everything else.