Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit

When I checked The Faraway Nearby out of the library, I thought it was a memoir of Solnit's experiences as her mother descended to the depths of Alzheimer's and then died. At first, the book matched my expectations, with Solnit using a mountain of apricots given to her by her brother just as their mother was having a health crisis as a symbol for stories of the unripe, the ripening, and the rotting. But then suddenly Solnit is on her way to Iceland, riffing on the story of Frankenstein and the family history of its author. As the book progresses, she occasionally returns to her mother's story and recounts her own experience with illness, but mostly she reflects on stories that were meaningful to her during this period. In fact, she describes the book as "a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company then." These stories range from the life of Buddha, to Che Guevara's radicalizing time at a leper colony, to Icelandic myths (there is even a mini-essay about moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds running along the bottom of the pages)--and the meanings of these stories for Solnit and others--the "questions about how to tell and how to listen"--are the real focus of the book.

Frankly, I had simply no idea what meaning to give many of the stories Solnit tells and retells. Indeed, I struggled with The Faraway Nearby--I had to renew it twice, which is a fairly unusual occurrence. Several times I asked myself, "Why am I continuing to slog through this odd conglomeration of stuff?" But then I would come across something that set off a "ping" of recognition, making the struggle worthwhile. For someone who is has a less prosaic turn of mind, I can imagine this book being very rewarding. For others more like me, perhaps a "pick-and-choose" approach to reading the book would be a better use of time.

Favorite passages:
I talked about places, about the ways that we often talk about love of place, by which we mean our love for places, but seldom of how the places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness.

Books are solitudes in which we meet.

. . . we imagine that gifts put us in the giver's debt, and debt is supposed to be a bad thing. You see it in the way people sometimes try to reciprocate immediately out of a sense that indebtedness is a burden. But there are gifts people yearn to give and debts that tie us together.

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