Double Feature Memoir Review: With or Without You by Domenica Ruta and Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Memoirs are not my go-to genre of books and in fact, I tend to not like memoirs.  The stories told in memoirs, in my opinion, are usually not worth telling or reading.  And due to the nature of how memoirs are told, the author of a memoir often comes off as self-involved.  Which I admit to being an unfair judgment because the basic set up of memoirs are that by their nature, memoirs are self-focused.  I recently found two memoirs that were life changing for me.  Weeks after I finished these two books, the thoughts and experiences of thesebadass women stayed with me.  Despite the apparent difference in their stories, I believe there are similarities and am going to review both in one post today. Both stories center on a daughter’s relationship with her mother and on the author’s struggle to free herself from a chemical dependency. When I started these books, I did not realize the focus would be chemical dependency and mothers. I likely would not have started them had I realized that — which would have been a tragedy. These books are fantastic, if you only read two memoirs this year, then make it these two.

Double Feature Memoir Review

Wild by Cheryl Strayed and

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta


Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Audio and E-book checked out and downloaded from my local Overdrive library
Regina’s Rating: 5 stars/Grade A
Book Summary:

[box color=grey]At twenty-two, Cheryl Strayed thought she had lost everything. In the wake of her mother’s death, her family scattered and her own marriage was soon destroyed. Four years later, with nothing more to lose, she made the most impulsive decision of her life: to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State—-and to do it alone. She had no experience as a long-distance hiker, and the trail was little more than “an idea, vague and outlandish and full of promise.” But it was a promise of piecing back together a life that had come undone.

Strayed faces down rattlesnakes and black bears, intense heat and record snowfalls, and both the beauty and loneliness of the trail. Told with great suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild vividly captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.[/box]

Wild is getting quite a bit of national buzz, my local friends have been pushing me to read it and as a result, I resisted starting this book. Reading Wild was a combination of a fuzzy walk down a specific memory lane of my early to mid-twenties and a current wish fulfillment fantasy. Author Cheryl Strayed is a few years older than me, her memoir is focused on her childhood, her teen years, her college aged time period and then her mid-twenties. Because of this shared timing in our age, the context and atmosphere that Cheryl wrote about seemed to be a shared memory for me … to a certain extent anyway.

In 1995, Cheryl hiked 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. Let’s stop and think about that – Cheryl hiked 1100 miles on her own, with her feet – walking. She was 26 years old, she was alone, inexperienced, unprepared and depressed. Reeling and suffering from the unexpected death of her mother, surviving in a marriage that she was too young to make work and fighting a growing addiction to sex and heroin, Ms. Strayed sets out to change her life. She did this without access to money or a support network. At first glance, Wild appears to be in the same genre or category as Eat Love Pray. After all, is this not about a women’s journey to become more centered and straighten her life out? But it is not the same story nor is it the same journey. Wild is everything that Eat Love Pray hoped to be, wanted to be and could not be. Wild is a woman struggling economically to overcome her demons and depression.

Cheryl grew up raised by a single mother of three children who had escaped a violent relationship. Her mother could be described as counter-culture and before her time. She bought rural land in Minnesota and set up a sort of mini farm and rustic retreat, with very little funds and amenities. Despite the title (From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail), the book does not take place entirely on hiking trail – as I expected that it would. Cheryl gives context to who she is, talking about her childhood, her relationship with her mother, her mother’s cancer diagnosis and quick decline, Cheryl’s disintegrating relationship with her siblings and step-father after her mother’s death, and discussing her youthful marriage.

Cheryl spent the majority of her life outside the mainstream, at first not by choice but eventually by her own choosing. After her mother passes away, Cheryl is 22 and alone. She waits tables, does heroin and inexplicably cheats on a loving husband by repeatedly seeking out the attention of men. Cheryl paints an unsympathetic picture of a girl who is lost, sad and lonely despite having the support of a young husband who appears to be her best friend. But ultimately, it becomes obvious that he is too young and experienced to give her the help she needs and she is drifting and depressed. During the telling of this tale, Ms. Strayed is harshly critical in her portrayal of her younger self and lovingly paints an image of her young husband. In a way, the story is a tribute to those that loved Cheryl – to her mother and to her young husband.

Aware that her life is going nowhere, Cheryl seizes on the idea of traveling across the country to hike an impossible sounding trail that spans thousands of miles. Unprepared but inspired, she prepares boxes of equipment and food to be sent to her along her hike and she sets out. Her backpack is too heavy, her hiking shoes are too tight and she is alone. Perhaps, it seems impossible that she could succeed; but her past life living without most Americans take for granted, living rustically and suffering give her the basic skills to survive on the trail.

This book resonated with me and kept me thinking about the trail, nature and self-discovery for long after I read it. Cheryl endured the seemingly impossible – hunger, losing toenails, bleeding feet, hiking through snow in shorts, and the solitude of the woods for days and weeks on end. But the image of her pushing her body to its absolute limit and discovering herself is absolutely inspiring. Along the trail in 1995, Cheryl meets other hikers and develops relationships; at exit points along the trail, she meets other counter-culture individuals that were so familiar to me, I felt like I could reach out and touch them. She paints life outside of the mainstream during the early to mid-1990s accurately – and achingly nostalgic.

Wild is a book for people who wonder – what am I capable of? Or for people who wonder – why do I hurt those that I love? Wild is for people who have lost someone they love and struggle to move past this loss. And Wild is just a great story about a girl who was lost and found a way to transform herself into a woman.

Rating: ☠  ☠  ☠  ☠  ☠ 

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta
Publication Date: February 26, 2013
ARC Provided by Edelweiss and Random House 
Regina’s Rating: 5 stars/Grade A
Book Summary:

[box color=grey]Domenica Ruta’s WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is a compellingly readable, lyrical memoir about many things: a chaotic childhood in a working-class town, the power—and sometimes stranglehold—of mother-daughter relationships, the painful realities of trauma and addiction, and above all, the story of an exceptional individual beating the odds.

Before she was a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and a recipient of prestigious residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, among others, Domenica Ruta was a girl growing up in Danvers, Massachusetts in the shadow of her larger-than-life mother who was a drug addict and sometime dealer.  Even as Ruta navigated the treacherous waters of her mother’s base appetites, quick temper, and crooked moral code, she was nourished by Kathi’s love of movies and storytelling, her sense of humor, and her outsize aspirations for both of them.  Ruta struggled to gain social footing at school, suffered at the hands of Kathi’s questionable “friends” and formed her own palate for drugs and alcohol, she excelled at academics and kept her sights on a world outside the one her mother created.

After dedicating herself to the cause of getting into Phillips Academy Andover—and away from Danvers—Ruta went to Oberlin and then to the University of Texas at Austin’s MFA program, all the while functioning on a steady diet of drugs and booze.  Even after she cuts her mother off, she still drinks to the point of losing entire weeks, and with the dark realization that she too is now an addict, Ruta seeks help and is finally able to break away—from memories of Kathi and from her own demons.

WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is Ruta’s love letter to her mother—to both the woman who scraped together money to send her to French lessons and painting classes and the one who spent her welfare money on cocaine. An unconventional coming-of-age story and the sharply observed chronicle of one woman’s redemption from her past, Domenica Ruta’s powerful memoir is not to be missed. [/box]

Domenica Ruta’s book is a brutally honest portrait of her childhood, her mother, her family and of herself. Although the subject matter is ugly and disturbing, Ruta writes it in such a beautifully and addictive way. I could not put this book down. My home life was the far opposite of Ruta’s, but on the pages of this book I lived her childhood with her. I felt like crying and I did laugh out loud multiple times. Ruta has a gift for taking the reader where she wants and giving the reader an experience of a new and different life.

Domenica is the girl you may have known at school that your parents wouldn’t let you socialize with or maybe you were friends with her, but your mom wouldn’t let you go over to her house. Domenica’s tale is amazing and shocking. Her mother is a self-centered woman and an addict of everything – violence, drugs, drinking, eating and tv/movies. Domenica often goes to school in dirty, worn out clothes and describes herself (unfairly) to be an unattractive young girl.

“On a good day, I was and still am often startled by what the mirror has to offer.”

Her father is physically abusive and scary. Both parents are unprepared to parent, not entirely unwilling to parent, but unprepared.

“Neither of my parents tired of telling me how gorgeous everyone thought they were when they were young. Pride like this is both tyrannical and tragic, for the chief function of pride is to usher in the fall.”

“Listen, you have no idea what it’s like to be really good-looking,” my father said.

“I’d feel sorry for your future husband,” my father said grinning, “but who would ever be crazy enough to marry a cow like you?”

“Honey,” my mother asked in a plaintive voice, “why do you always look like a fat forty-year old lesbian?”

Despite their flaws, Ruta’s love for her parents and her family shines through the words on the pages in this book.

Dominica grew up in a household where she was repeatedly told that she was unattractive, was strewn with garbage and drug paraphernalia and yet, she loved to read, she loved to learn and she was driven to succeed. How does this happen? How does a drug running and drug-using mother raise an author? Despite being completely self-focused and bizarrely unprepared to mother, Domenica’s other is obsessed with her succeeding in life. She learns about boarding school, ballet lessons and makes these happen for her daughter. Despite living in poverty and being relatively uneducated herself, she is determined to give her daughter these opportunities. Yet, she wants her daughter to succeed on her terms…

“My mother was always hounding me to get pregnant while I was in high school.”

“My mother didn’t fuss over me as much once I started smoking pot. She seemed relieved.”

In the end, the book is about a daughter’s love for her mother but who also has a desperate need to separate from her mother’s abuse and dysfunction in order to survive. Stories about mothers and alcohol abuse are usually not my thing, but I loved this book. If you like to read and experience something different from who you are, this book will take you there.

Rating: ☠  ☠  ☠  ☠  ☠ 

© 2013 – 2014, Badass Book Reviews. All rights reserved.

Comments 4

  • Hey Flann! I listened to the audio of this book and it wasn’t the author, but I did really like the narration. I just checked audible and it appears the author Domenica Ruta narrates her memoir! Very interesting! I don’t know how it is though.

    Flann, I have wondered why Wild affected me so deeply. I do not have a lot in common with Cheryl Strayed except that we both grew up during the same time and occupied counter culture during the early and mid 1990s. I loved her voice, her journey and how honest she was about herself. I do know some people were bothered by the casual reference to drugs, sex and that while on the trail Ms. Strayed had to deviate from what so many women consider basic grooming. 🙂

    If you listen to these I would love to read your opinion. I am off to check your shelves on GR to see what memoirs you read last year!

  • I was meant to read Wild with one of my IRL book clubs–everyone who *did* read it really enjoyed it, though I liked your words about the memoir more than I did what my friends had to say about it. (or at least you made me want to revisit it rather than let it rot on my Kindle) I’d never even heard of the second one but it sounds riveting. I wonder if either of these authors narrates the audiobooks for these? I went on a memoir audiobook binge last year and I think about doing it again quite often. These two sound like they’d be amazing.