The best books about making huge life changes and the stories behind them

The Books I Picked & Why

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

By Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Why this book?

I loved Strayed’s raw, honest, vivid writing and fearless dive into her deepest, ugliest feelings following the death of her beloved mother. Strayed deals with her grief by smashing up her life and heading out on a grueling, lonely hike. My husband had just been diagnosed with cancer and I was working on my book about our sailing adventure at the time. Little did I know how helpful Wild would be both in dealing with my husband’s passing and in writing my book. I read Wild when it first came out and aspired to write like her.


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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

By Robert M. Pirsig

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Why this book?

My sailor husband and I both read this book in the early 1970s when we were living on a romantic, leaky 48-foot Fire Island ferryboat that he talked me into buying in our twenties. The book depicts Pirsig’s cross-country motorcycle trip with his teenaged son, with whom he’s had trouble connecting. They learn about each other and themselves on the journey, and Pirsig, a philosophy professor, discourses eloquently about classical vs. romantic approaches to life. My husband and I named our second boat after Pirsig’s alter ego, Phaedrus, whose search for a higher quality of life drove him insane. I still have my dog-eared copy of the book.


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H Is for Hawk

By Helen MacDonald

H Is for Hawk

Why this book?

Macdonald’s fierce determination to train a wild goshawk is at first puzzling: why is she choosing such a difficult, aggressive bird to train and sticking with it when she clearly is failing? As we learn about her close relationship with her recently deceased father, it becomes slowly, beautifully clear that the bird and the falconer--both injured in their own way—have much to give each other. I happened upon the book the year after my husband passed away and it was more helpful than any grief therapy.


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Sea Wife

By Amity Gaige

Sea Wife

Why this book?

Gaige’s writing is terrific, insightful, fresh, and fast-paced. As I read about the fictional couple and their conflicts at sea, I was struck by the similarities to our real-life sailing experience. In a fabulous first scene, the wife hides in a closet, unable to deal with reality. She reluctantly goes on a voyage with her husband and their lives change, much as ours did. I never hid in a closet, but before the voyage, I was someone who if I didn’t like reality, ignored it. At sea, that’s not possible. 


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The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

By James Rebanks

The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape

Why this book?

James Rebanks was born in England’s Lake District into a family who valued the hard work and ancient traditions of shepherding in the high hills. Later, he winds up at Oxford, seemingly headed for a life of financial success in the city, and realizes that while the world at large may value such success, he values the quiet, steady, solitary shepherd’s life and chooses that instead. He beautifully depicts a life steeped in tradition, honoring the seasons, and filled with characters. I loved learning about a slice of life that I knew little about.


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