The Stranger in the Woods and Goodbye, Vitamin

For those in the U.S., I wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving. I hope your turkey day and weekend are filled with plenty of good food, cheer and family gatherings. We’ve already had the holiday here, back in October, so alas, it’s the usual workweek in Canada (see my book assistant at left, napping with her dolly). Still, times feel festive and Christmas parties and decorations are already upon us. The forecast is calling for a warming trend here in which it’s supposed to reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit on U.S. Thanksgiving Day. That will definitely help us thaw out quite a bit and might melt away much of the snow by the weekend. Hooray, now all I need to do is not wipe out on the ice that’s leftover.

In book news, I want to congratulate author Michael Redhill this week for winning Canada’s biggest literary award, the Giller Prize, for his novel “Bellevue Square.” I haven’t read it just yet, but I heard the author read from it just last month at our city’s annual book festival.

It seems a bit of a page-turner, in which a woman in Toronto tries to track down her doppelganger following rumors that someone that looks just like her hangs out at Belluvue Square, a local park in the city. But when park users, eager to help her, start disappearing, things turn sinister and she must find a way to put an end to it.

It sounds like a doozy. Apparently the novel has a slew of plot twists and turns and is a bit of a mind-bender. It slightly reminds me of the Jake Gyllenhaal 2013 film “Enemy” in which he plays a man who seeks out his look-alike after spotting him in a movie. Did you see that one? It’s pretty creepy and strange no doubt.

Meanwhile I finished the audio of Michael Finkel’s nonfiction book “The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit.” It’s a journalist’s story about a man who apparently lived alone in a tent in the woods of Maine for 27 years before being caught breaking into a camp site for food. You get to know the journalist a bit as it’s partly his story of how he comes to gradually interview and interact with this very reticent individual — the hermit Chris Knight — whom he first meets while Knight’s in jail, waiting to be sentenced for the thousand break-ins he committed in order to survive around the North Pond area of Maine.

Oh he’s no easy loner. Knight, it’s clear, wants no part of the journalist or society and would rather be left alone. It seems like pulling teeth to get his story. Even Knight’s family, being the stoic Mainers that they are, won’t talk with the journalist about him and didn’t report Knight missing when he disappeared at age 20 in 1986, yikes — he wasn’t found or captured until 2013. Still somehow the journalist gets to Knight and pieces his story together from nine one-hour interviews of him from jail.

Admittedly I had a hard time at first latching on to the story. The hermit — Knight — isn’t exactly the most likable character (he steals repeatedly and doesn’t say much for one thing), though his survival in the woods alone for so long is rather admirable and an interesting oddity. It’s curiosity more than anything that takes you into a story like this. How did he make it — especially living outside during the Maine winters without making any campfires — and why was he out there? Although he stole to survive, no one ever saw him do it and he’s said not to have really damaged property; he pried open windows apparently, using screwdrivers. There’s an unbelievability to his feat of being alone 27 years in the woods that’s hard to accept, or perhaps hard to fathom.

And I couldn’t help but compare Knight’s story a bit to that of Chris McCandless’s, who author Jon Krakauer wrote about in his 1996 book “Into the Wild” — about a young 23-year-old who goes off to live on his own in a remote part of Alaska. That’s a tragic story that gripped me from the get-go. Knight’s feat of surviving outdoors is much more successful, but his whole background and tale perhaps quite a bit less so. But I did like the fact that Knight was a voracious reader in the woods  (from books he stole at summer cabins a ways away) and also liked how in tune he was with nature and how he knew the seasons and trees and everything around him.

But perhaps what elevated “The Stranger in the Woods” story for me — was not exactly the hermit himself or the journalist’s many attempts to try to connect with him, which were often futile, but perhaps all the research the author did in the book about topics such as solitude in the wild, idleness, loneliness, survival skills, and studies of other hermits around the world. It was quite interesting, and as the book went along I got more into it.

It’s even discussed whether the hermit had Asperger’s syndrome or the like. The audiobook, too, was a good way to go because the narrator was able to credibly do the different voices for both the journalist and the hermit, who has a Maine accent. The story engaged me till the end, though I felt uneasy that the author continued to try to contact the hermit even though the guy made it clear he was done with being contacted a year or so after he got out of jail. They weren’t going to end up being true buddy-buddies just because Knight agreed to talk to the journalist for his book. That much was clear.

I also finished reading Rachel Khong’s debut novel “Goodbye, Vitamin” last week. It’s about a 30-year-old girl (Ruth) who quits her job and returns home to her parents’ house for a year to take care of her ailing father, a prominent history professor, who’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s written from Ruth’s perspective in a diary format that details her relationships with her family, friends and her struggles over her recent breakup with her boyfriend.

There’s some amusing anecdotes and descriptions and creative turns of phrase in the story from which you can tell Ruth is a quirky but caring person. The author surely has talents about her writing, but somehow the story felt too episodic to me and not as cohesive as I would have liked.

My mind wandered too often while reading it, which is usually a sign that something isn’t working for me. The diary entries jumped around quite a bit in its telling of vignettes, and I couldn’t get fully gripped by the story. It’s too bad, I so wanted to like the novel from all the hype it received when it came out in July. It was said to be quirky, endearing, funny and heartwarming too, and it is all that in ways, it just didn’t fully capture my attention. And its ending, too, didn’t make much of an impression on me. Still I’ll be curious to see what she puts out next.

What about you — have you read either of these books — and if so, what did you think?

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12 Responses to The Stranger in the Woods and Goodbye, Vitamin

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    The Stranger in the Woods sounds so intriguing. The fact that the story is so hard to imagine adds to the appeal for me. It makes me wonder if there are some other folks out there like Knight. I may read this book.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Brian, It makes me cold just thinking of the hermit’s existence out there. It is hard to believe, and it makes you want to try to understand it. I found the book got more interesting as it went on, exploring topics along the way.

  2. It’ll almost be as warm there as it will be here tomorrow.

    I liked Goodbye, Vitamin more than you did and The Stranger in the Woods less than you did which is unusual because I think we have similar taste in books.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Ha, Kathy: We have reached SC temps for once! I know: we Are usually on the same page about books — I guess I’m in the minority on Goodbye Vitamin so it’s my fault. My mind was missing perhaps. Hope you have a great holiday.

  3. Hi Susan! We celebrate something like Thanksgiving in January. Our own harvest festival. I so want this year to rush. 🙂

    ‘The Stranger in The Wood’ sounds terrific. I wonder how one can live in one’s own head for almost three decades.

    I loved ‘Goodbye, Vitamin’. I loved it because Ruth’s story is a lot like mine. Like I am 30, I am on a career break, I am with my parents, I ruminate about the bitter relationships which I exited quite recently.. So her diaries worked for me. I want to read Khong’s next book too.

    By the way, your book-assistant seems quite efficient. I am swooning. 😀 <3

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Deepika: interesting — Thanksgiving in January! I like it. Nothing happens here in January — except the accumulation of frozen tundra. As for the hermit: I think living in one’s own head for that long would be really tough! Luckily he had a radio he played & books to read, which perhaps kept his sanity? And I’m glad you liked Goodbye Vitamin; I’m definitely in the minority on this one, so likely my mind was just elsewhere while I was reading it. My book assistant should have straightened me out. 🙂

  4. Carmen says:

    When I was in my teens, and even a little later, I would have liked to live in the woods, away from everyone and everything, so I think I can understand how someone does that for years. The problem is that that level of solitude takes an emotional toll. Anyways, I think I would find The Stranger in the Woods fascinating.

    I read favorable reviews of Goodbye, Vitamin in mid summer, but the blurb didn’t appeal to me. A novel of living with someone suffering from Alzheimer’s shouldn’t be that quirky or funny, but that’s just me rationalizing fiction.

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Carmen, yeah for anyone who’s thought about living in the woods — this book would be an interesting read. I can’t imagine the toll it takes to be out there for long periods. The hermit definitely needed counseling when he came back — he was overwhelmed by society. I guess I’m in the minority on the Goodbye, Vitamin book — most bloggers loved it. Maybe my attention span just wavered. thanks for your comments.

  5. Judy Krueger says:

    Thanks for the Thanksgiving wishes. It is done, two 8 hour days on the road, two nights and days of feasting, music and love (my sister’s family is awesome), now home again. Did not read a page. Ha Ha.
    Bellevue Square intrigues me as I love doppelganger stories.
    Stranger in the Woods not so much, though I do love the woods. I listened to a podcast interview with the author and for some reason took a dislike to him.
    Goodbye, Vitamin sounds like the author couldn’t decide if she was writing fiction or a memoir. I have had enough of Alzheimers due to family members who suffered from it. And if I get it a book isn’t going to help me, now is it?

    • Susan Wright says:

      Hi Judy, glad you had a nice Thanksgiving, even though the road trip sounds a bit long. Worth it, I’m sure. I’m #260 at the library for Bellevue Square, LOL! That’s what the Giller will do for you in Canada. I should see it by June, eh? As for Alzheimers, it’s scares the heck out of me. That’s not the way to go. If we keep reading, hopefully we won’t get it. That’s my plan at least.

  6. Naomi says:

    I’m fascinated by stories of hermits, so will probably eventually read Stranger in the Woods. Some of it really seems hard to believe, though, doesn’t it?

    And, as you know, I highly recommend Bellevue Square!

    • Susan Wright says:

      The hermit’s feat — does seem hard to believe, but the book also seems pretty conclusive that he was out there for so long. Hmm. See what you think about it. I’m not totally sure either way: but being a hermit is interesting to think about. This book contains quite a lot of topics surrounding it. As for Bellevue Square, I’m #249 on the wait list for it at our library. That’s what the Giller will do for you!

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