What We’re Reading: Strayed, Strahan and O'Connor
Each week we bring you a sample of the books we’re reading, the films and TV shows we’re watching, and the music we’re listening to.
Georgia Brough is reading Wild by Cheryl Strayed
At 26, Cheryl Strayed’s life ended – her mother had passed away a month after a fatal cancer diagnosis. Within the next few years, Cheryl’s family had fallen apart, her marriage had disintegrated and she’d developed a dangerous heroin habit. Standing in line at the pharmacy, she happened upon an old guide book about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), an 1100-mile hike from the Mojave desert to Washington state – and decided to do it. Wild is her memoir of that arduous, physically torturous journey, set against the breathtaking backdrops of rural, wild America. This is a moving story of a watershed moment – with her life crumbling about her ears, Cheryl makes a choice. She can either stay in misery and self-loathing, or she can piece together the ruins and make positive change. With no experience of long-distance hiking and little knowledge of the terrain, she sets off.
I’m the same age Cheryl was when she made this journey – and I’ve found recognition and solidarity with her experiences of self-discovery and growth along her trip. Plus, I’ve also always secretly harboured dreams of uprooting and heading off into the wilderness. Cheryl’s quest for redemption and meaning in a meaningless mental state have really moved me, as have her descriptions and experiences of the landscape. Whether it’s her loneliness and isolation driving her to shriek ‘Come back!’ at a native fox, or stopping to marvel at the mountains – despite losing toenails from her hiking boots, despite her pack rubbing her shoulders raw – I’ve found Cheryl’s story stirring and poignant.
Jackie Tang is reading The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge by Clare Strahan
I recently reread The Learning Curves of Vanessa Partridge, a funny, generous and poignant summer holiday YA novel that explores complex facets of modern teen life through the hilarious and original perspective of its titular character. In Vanessa, Clare Strahan has crafted a bold, smart and uproariously funny character whose spark of individuality immediately feels real and alive, lighting up the page with her quirky philosophical thoughts and enthusiastic curiosity for the world around her.
The novel deals with some tough issues: desire, consent, sexual boundaries and speaking up. While many young adult novels may steer clear of the messy and difficult territory of desire, Vanessa Partridge handles its questions of physical attraction with humour and sophistication. The way Strahan unpacks these dynamics – fantasy vs reality; exhilaration vs shame; and how to express your needs and boundaries – will resonate with so many readers in their teenage years as well as those well out of them. And when the plot takes a darker turn, the reality of sexual assault in the lives of young women is depicted with grace, compassion and honesty. This is a book about being a teenage girl trying to figure out what you want and how to want it. It is about trusting in yourself and coming into your own power, and it’s contemporary YA at its very best.
Ellen Cregan is reading The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor
I’ve been rereading Flannery O’Connor’s short stories this week. I hardly ever get time to revisit classics, but it’s such a nice thing to do – O’Connor has been one of my favourite writers since I first discovered her in my late high school years. Her writing captures the tension in a moment of violence, or one just about to turn violent, so perfectly, and her prose is so descriptive you can find yourself fully immersed in a scene. My favourite story of hers is ‘The Geranium’, which is the opening story in my edition of her collected works (and also one of the stories she published in her master’s thesis!). Weirdly enough, I don’t usually love American writers. O’Connor (and a few others who write Southern Gothic) is an exception to the rule.