Book choice for April 2010

Into the Wild [suggested by Martin Foy]

front cover

Christopher McCandless was twenty four when he headed off alone with the intention of surviving by what he could hunt and garner in the wilds of Alaska. People have since labelled him as reckless, arrogant and stupid - but with his idealistic yearning to emulate Tolstoy, Jack London and Thoreau, was he not in fact courageous and noble? He was certainly ill-prepared for such a venture and paid the ultimate price for his odyssey.

Jon Krakauer, the author of the book, had a particular, vested interest in the tragic tale. He too as a young man had experienced a similar compulsion to set himself against the wild elements, to rebel against his conventional lifestyle and upbringing. In his opening note, Krakauer seems to apologise for including his own story of setting out to conquer a mountain and almost losing his life in the process; but I found this account even more intense and compelling than the sometimes over-meticulous details of everyone encountered by McCandless in his last months.

The unavoidable conjecture as to McCandless's motivation, his troubled family background, and state of mind in his last awful weeks, make a compelling reason for using this book as a set text in schools. Most cultures have a kind of "coming of age" ritual, especially for young men, who have to test themselves, set themselves against the establishment. There is much in the book that should open discussion with teenagers - though surely there must be a way to opt out of the conventional path most unquestioning people's lives take, without sacrificing their own life, as most of the rather depressing examples quoted in the book do.[review by Four Violets on]

Naturally, a book this famous has a Wikipedia page, and since it has been made into a movie, there's also an official movie site.

About the Author

JON KRAKAUER is the author of Eiger Dreams, Into the Wild , and Into Thin Air , and is editor of the Modern Library Exploration series.

Born in 1954, Jon Krakauer grew up in Corvallis, Oregon, where his father introduced him to mountaineering as an 8-year-old. After graduating from Hampshire College in 1976, Krakauer divided his time between Colorado, Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest, earning his living primarily as a carpenter and commercial salmon fisherman, spending most of his free moments in the mountains. In 1977 he traveled alone to the remote Stikine Icecap in Southeast Alaska, went three weeks without encountering another person, and climbed a new route on a graceful, intimidating peak called the Devils Thumb. In 1992 he climbed the West Face of Cerro Torre in the Patagonian Andes (a mile-high spike of granite sheathed in a carapace of frozen rime, Cerro Torre was once considered the most difficult mountain on earth.)

In May 1996 Krakauer reached the top of Mt. Everest, but during the descent a storm engulfed the peak, taking the lives of four of the five teammates who climbed to the summit with him. An analysis of the calamity that he wrote for Outside magazine received a National Magazine Award. The unsparingly honest book he subsequently wrote about Everest, INTO THIN AIR, became a #1 New York Times bestseller and has been translated into 24 languages. It was also honored as the "Book of the Year" by TIME magazine, one of the "Best Books of the Year" by the New York Times Book Review, a finalist for a 1997 National Book Critics Circle Award, and one of three finalists for the 1998 Pulitzer Prize in General Non-Fiction

[abridged bio from Random House]

See also Krakauer's Wikipedia page.


Shortlisted for this month

The nominator can bring one, two, or three books to be chosen by the group (or mandated in the case of only one book being selected). This month, Martin's other suggestions were:

Once in a House On Fire

Once in a House On Fire

Given her start in life, it is all the more remarkable that Andrea Ashworth should have turned out to be an Oxford graduate with such a compelling memoir under her belt. Her father died when she was five, her mother was left, poor and isolated in 70s, depressed Manchester to bring up Andrea and her younger sister singlehandedly. Along comes a physically abusive stepfather who sets about dragging the young family into the pits of despair, petty crime and sordid poverty. But Ashworth writes an enchanting story that blends social history (the 70s are rendered with an acute eye for detail) with poetic intensity. She turns a child's uncomprehending gaze on the domestic horrors of working- class life when it is dominated by a vicious man and drunken, self-pitying mother. We know, as we listen with Andrea, that her mother has decided to leave her man when she puts Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" on the turntable. Unfortunately, we know, too, that she was kidding herself when said man comes home and twirls her round the front room to the sound of Motown disco. We know, because Ashworth makes us re-live her childhood by dint of her astonishing gift for storytelling. --Lilian Pizzichini [writing on]

About the Author

Andrea Ashworth is an academic, journalist, and author of the internationally bestselling memoir Once in a House on Fire (Picador 1998).

After finishing her degree at Oxford University, Andrea travelled to Yale on a graduate fellowship, and it was then that she began to think about writing a book about her childhood experiences. Once in a House on Fire has now been made into a critically acclaimed stage play Hitting Home, which has toured in the UK and abroad.

Andrea now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter, and has written for numerous publications including Vogue, The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. She is currently working on a novel.

The above taken from Ashworth's agency site, she also has a Wikipedia entry.

The Lovely Bones

The Lovely Bones

On her way home from school on a snowy December day, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is lured into a cornfield and brutally raped and murdered, the latest victim of a serial killer. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold's haunting and heartbreaking debut novel, unfolds from heaven, where "life is a perpetual yesterday" and where Susie narrates and keeps watch over her grieving family and friends, as well as her brazen killer and the sad detective working on her case.

As Sebold fashions it, everyone has his or her own version of heaven. Susie's resembles the athletic fields and landscape of a suburban high school: a heaven of her "simplest dreams", where "there were no teachers... We never had to go inside except for art class... The boys did not pinch our backsides or tell us we smelled; our textbooks were Seventeen and Glamour and Vogue".

The Lovely Bones works as an odd yet affecting coming-of-age story. Susie struggles to accept her death while still clinging to the lost world of the living, following her family's dramas over the years. Her family disintegrates in their grief: her father becomes determined to find her killer, her mother withdraws, her little brother Buckley attempts to make sense of the new hole in his family and her younger sister Lindsey moves through the milestone events of her teenage and young adult years with Susie riding spiritual shotgun. Random acts and missed opportunities run throughout the book--Susie recalls her sole kiss with a boy on earth as "like an accident--a beautiful gasoline rainbow".

Though sentimental at times, The Lovely Bones is a moving exploration of loss and mourning that ultimately puts its faith in the living and that is made even more powerful by a cast of convincing characters. Sebold orchestrates a big finish and though things tend to wrap up a little too well for everyone in the end, one can only imagine (or hope) that heaven is indeed a place filled with such happy endings. --Brad Thomas Parsons,

There's also a Wikipedia page and once again this has been made into a film, so there's an official movie site.

About the Author

Alice Sebold's first published book was a memoir of her rape as an eighteen-year-old college freshman. Titled Lucky because one of the policemen told her that she was lucky to be alive--not long before Sebold's attack, another young woman had been killed and dismembered in the same tunnel--the book was many years in the making.

Sebold continued trying to write after graduation and moved to New York City, where she lived for ten years.

Lucky began to take shape in the late 1990s, when Sebold was studying fiction writing at a graduate program at UCI. She read through old letters and journal entries, the transcripts of her rapist's trial, and even returned to Syracuse and talked to the former assistant district attorney who had helped to prosecute the man, allowing her, even fifteen years after the attack, to tell the story in great detail. Despite her dark subject matter, "Sebold's wit is as powerful as her searing candor," remarked a Publishers Weekly contributor.

Sebold's second book, The Lovely Bones, is similarly dark in topic. Its narrator, fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon, is raped and killed by a neighbor at the beginning of the book. She narrates the story of her death--and of her family, her friends, and herself coming to terms with it--in the first person from her omniscient seat in heaven. This is "Sebold's most dazzling stroke," declared a Publishers Weekly reviewer, as it "provid[es] the warmth of a first-person narration and the freedom of an omniscient one." That omniscience is necessary, since Susie's tale encompasses several different stories: Susie's mother's search to build a new life away from the family after the murder; her father's quest to find the real killer, into which Susie's teenage sister Lindsay is drawn and which puts her at great risk from the same killer; and Susie's vicarious living-out of her own teen and young adult years through Lindsay. "What might play as a sentimental melodrama in the hands of a lesser writer becomes in this volume a keenly observed portrait of familial love and how it endures and changes over time," Michiko Kakutani declared in the New York Times. Connie Ogle in the Houston Chronicle stated: "The Lovely Bones is a disturbing story, full of horror and confusion and deep, bone-weary sadness. And yet it reflects a moving, passionate interest in and love for ordinary life at its most wonderful, most awful, even at its most mundane." Writing in Christian Century, Stephen H. Webb admitted that The Lovely Bones has "the most powerful opening chapter of any novel I have read."

The above abridged from the bookrags website and, as always, there's a Wikipedia entry.


Previous Months' Book Choices

March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006