In this exquisitely written new book by the author of "A Paradise Built in Hell," Rebecca Solnit explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination. Read more...
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In this exquisitely written new book by the author of "A Paradise Built in Hell," Rebecca Solnit explores the ways we make our lives out of stories, and how we are connected by empathy, by narrative, by imagination. In the course of unpacking some of her own stories--of her mother and her decline from memory loss, of a trip to Iceland, of an illness--Solnit revisits fairytales and entertains other stories: about arctic explorers, Che Guevara among the leper colonies, and Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, about warmth and coldness, pain and kindness, decay and transformation, making art and making self. Woven together, these stories create a map which charts the boundaries and territories of storytelling, reframing who each of us is and how we might tell our story.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-04-08
- Reviewer: Staff
San Francisco social activist and National Book Critics Circle Award–winner Solnit (River of Shadows; A Paradise Built in Hell) fashions an elegant study in empathy through these meandering reflections on subjects as diverse as her mother’s descent into dementia, Che Guevara, and Solnit’s own “magical rescue” to Iceland for some months as resident at the Library of Water museum. Storytelling is Solnit’s way of perceiving the suffering of others, she writes, and her first essays explore the decidedly mixed feelings she harbored toward her difficult mother as she grew more and more forgetful, revealing the dreaded symptoms of Alzheimer’s. The author struggled to honor the “unremembered past” she shared with her often critical, resentful mother. From the rotting apricots gathered from her mother’s yard, Solnit made jam, an act of stalling their inevitable decay—a startlingly moving metaphor for vanitas. Ice is another preserver/destroyer, and Solnit segues nimbly into her explorations in Iceland by way of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which begins and ends on ice, with the polar explorer’s narrative. Throughout, Solnit subtly touches on subject ranging from Guevara’s contact with leprosy patients as he traveled around Latin America in the 1950s to the reach of Buddhism to Icelandic history, to her own health crisis—and all in her enormously fluid style. Agent: Bonnie Nadell, Hill Nadell Literary Agency. (June)
The creation of one's own mythology
Elegant and intense, Rebecca Solnit’s award-winning books and essays chart new terrain in history, memoir, philosophy and activism. The Faraway Nearby continues Solnit’s narrative exploration into new forms of nonfiction prose, resembling most closely her 2006 peregrination A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit’s new excursion is gracefully written, accessible and always deeply thoughtful, and should—if there is any justice in the world—win her many new readers.
“Empathy is a journey you travel,” Solnit tells us, when you tell stories or listen to them, and when you feel another’s pain as your own. Storytelling is one of the central nodes of Solnit’s new book, which begins with the story of her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease and leads into a terrible season of near-daily parental emergencies, culminating in Solnit’s own brush with cancer.
After her mother is moved into a care facility, Solnit receives a gift—or perhaps, a curse—from her mother’s fruit trees: hundreds and hundreds of ripe and over-ripe apricots that she spreads out over her bedroom floor. Her “inheritance” of the apricots prompts a digression into fairy tales, into enchantments and other impossible tasks, such as Rapunzel spinning straw into gold or the Swan Girl knitting vests for her brothers.
Solnit is a spinster in its old meaning, which is to say that she is a weaver of tales. And so this is no conventional memoir, although it is about a difficult relationship between mother and daughter. In The Faraway Nearby, one story always leads to another: Fairy tales turn to a meditation on ice and being cold, to Frankenstein, arctic exploration and a visit to Iceland. A medical crisis brings up the stories of two friends, one who gives birth and one who dies, both prematurely. The theme of radical empathy prompts the conversion stories of Che Guevara and Buddha, of their youthful progression from privilege to revolutionary activism.
Solnit’s writing is so beautiful and prescient it can feel like she is whispering in your ear: “Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.” The solitary writer imagines a space for her solitary reader to inhabit. As we move deeper into The Faraway Nearby, we find that we are not so alone as we thought, that a luminous presence moves before us, weaving a thread that we follow through the labyrinth.