Sunday, 10 November 2013

Cheryl Strayed's Torch

When Cheryl Strayed published Wild last year (reviewed here), her career went stratospheric. Wild: a Journey from Lost to Found chronicled with deepest darkest humour how, at twenty-six, a catalogue of personal disasters led to her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She had just divorced a man she loved, aborted her heroin-shooting lover's baby and watched her family wrench apart in the wake of her mother's untimely death. Oh God, you think, another misery-guts self-centred 'journey' of a memoir - but you would be wrong. Wild was so extraordinarily well-written, honest, and funny, that 50,000 people now 'like' Strayed on Facebook, the number of hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail has shot through the ceiling and Reese Witherspoon is busy filming the memoir in Oregon.

Strayed hiking the PCT in 1995
Seven years before Wild emerged, Strayed published Torch. It was her first novel and it, too, was heavily autobiographical. Thirty-eight year-old Teresa Rae Wood is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her family - partner Bruce, and children Claire and Joshua - begin to fracture and peel away from each other with pain. As Teresa lies dying in a hospice, Strayed paints a multi-dimensional portrait of the past and present of this accidental family: the single mother who turned up in the backwaters of Minnesota, and cobbled together jobs and boyfriends until Bruce came along; the latter who can't believe his grief and can only move forward by hurling himself immediately into marriage with another woman; the daughter who watches herself, bemused, seeking solace with an older man and lying to her stable, reliable, but dull boyfriend; the son who skips school and would rather have drugs and opportunistic sex than acknowledge Teresa's cancer by visiting her in hospital. Small-town life suffocates and supports her characters in equal measure; mother, partner, son and daughter twist, squirm and resist as they are unwillingly bound together in the unavoidable final chapter of life.

Miseryguts? Maybe. But honest, too. No-one writes about grief, pain, and the desperate need to feel better somehow, anyhow, like Strayed does. She really has seen it all - and from the other side she ploughs it back into her writing with ferocious eloquence, sympathy, and humility. In one vignette that encapsulates the human mess, Claire and Joshua pile their mother's belongings into boxes to remove them from Bruce's house. His new wife is moving in and they want all Teresa's possessions gone, uncontaminated. Objects jostle preposterously:

...a pair of scissors, a camera, a half-used bottle of Vick's Vapor Rub, and a collection of Johnny Cash CDs might be in one box; a salad spinner, their mother's ancient reading glasses, an unopened jumbo packet of sugar-free gum, and a lampshade in another. Claire refused to throw anything out...the gum was possibly the last pack of gum their mother had purchased. 

We've all packed those boxes; Strayed's talent is to tell a story so real that we know we are not alone.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Surviving Sickdays: a Technological Guide for Dummies

Freshers' Flu. The Flu that in university towns you will get even if it's been a while since you were Fresh and even if you don't actually know any Freshers. Once you've picked up the bug that's ambled its selfish-gene way from Fresher to Fresher to tutor to colleague to admin to yoga buddy to YOU, you get to splutter, cough, sneeze and ring in sick. Now is your chance to catch up on all that reading, write those expenses claims, tackle the giant pile of laundry, reply to the emails that never quite made it onto your executive radar, and transfer your filing system from the floor to - the floor in another room while you make an Evernote to buy files. Being ill can be so productive.
Except maybe it's genuinely bad and when you try to read, words start inexplicably swimming off the page or bouncing along the top of your consciousness like pebbles skipping along the top of a muddy pond. Perhaps your head hurts at the prospect of formulating numbers in your foggy brain and then putting them together. Or mustering the energy to write emails feels like wringing out your laundry by hand. On these occasions one must accept that one is positively bona fide sick and relegate the Puritan work ethic to be deployed on some future slightly milder infection. Fortunately, entertainment is at hand these days in a way it wasn't ten years ago, when I had to crawl across the room to turn over the cassette tape and was enthralled to the schedule of the television a miserable fifteen stairs, three 45 degree turns to the left and two doors away. Now one can be properly ill and entertained from the comfort of one's bed, with the following technological blessings:

1) The smartphone and/or tablet. You're going to need this pretty much every moment of every sickday. Leaving aside the messages of sympathy you'll want (in between naps) to elicit from concerned friends, there'll come a grim moment at about 4pm of every sickday when you have to decide whether you're going to need to cancel on everyone tomorrow. Given that you have to carefully estimate just how much better you're likely to get in the next seventeen hours, based on current temperature and sneeze-per-minute ratio, this is a cognitively gruelling exercise that would only be exacerbated were you blurrily trying to read your handwriting in your paper diary and type grovelling emails with one hand on the laptop (whose power cable keeps falling off) precariously balanced on your knee a sufficient distance from the diary that you're holding open but also worrying a bit about everything's proximity to the bowl on the other side of the bed that still contains some cold soup from lunch which will either spill on the duvet or into which the tissue box will fall.

With the smartphone and/or tablet, a few swipes and taps and it all just happens. Magic.

2) Audiobooks. Specifically, Audible. You are not actually going to listen to those podcasts that you downloaded from Yale and Stanford and Berkeley for the eventuality of such a sickly occasion. You simply do not have the spare brainpower given that, as previously established, the written word alone is proving a trial. Also, when it comes to Audible, you are not going to listen to Dante, Hume, Winston Churchill or any of the other worthies that you've felt good and intellectual about downloading every month for the past year with your cut-price subscription. What you actually want is the chicken soup of audiobooks. Whether that's Jilly Cooper, David Attenborough, Heinrich Harrer or Fifty Shades (there's no accounting for taste), pick whatever will keep you enchanted for hours at a time. Whack it on the smartphone, and it will sit on your pillow nattering happily at you while you snooze.

3) Video games. For all their brain-numbing, attention-deficit-incurring, neuro-pleasure-centre-exhausting properties, you will find these indispensable. The good news is that there's a game suited to every stage of Freshers' Flu. When you're so far gone that you can't remember your middle name, Candy Crush is appropriately mindless. You will find yourself peacefully moving Candies across the screen into lines of three for hours at a time and wondering whether you will ever hold your own in a seminar again. But fear not. By day three or four, though still mouldy-student-housebound, some degree of working memory has returned and you can probably risk a strategy or role-playing game. Build your own farm with Hay Day or city with Megapolis. And be firm with yourself when you return to real life: the lecturer will realise that the look of concentration on your face at 9.03am on a Monday morning is nothing to do with the notes you're nominally typing on your iPad, and more about the cost-benefit analysis you're performing on the merits of mass-producing virtual cherry jam versus virtual cherry juice.

4) Blogs. Find a new one with a good backlog of posts that you can really glutton on in between micro-sleeps. By great good fortune, having exhausted A Girl Called Jack and Skint Foodie, I came across Recipe Rifle by Esther Walker, other half of food critic Giles Coren. It's a blog ostensibly about cooking and also about being mother to two tiny people. The recipes are lovely, the mother-of-two-tiny-people bit as fascinating as it is candid. Savour your Freshers' Flu and be thankful you ain't sitting up all night with a tiny person's Freshers' Flu. (If you are, ignore this blog post. You need a bottle of whisky and a medal.)

Feel better soon, everyone.