After spending a few months with me in London some years ago, a very good friend was about to return to New Zealand and was making some major changes in her life, both personal and in her career. She wasn’t entirely sure what job she wanted to do, but knew it would be in the great outdoors. She loved to travel and she loved nature. I organised a subscription to Wanderlust Travel magazine for her, an inspiration of amazing photography, fabulous ideas for out-of-the-way places to visit and best of all, a link to exciting jobs for those who love to travel across cultures, to be outdoors and meet people.
She completed a diploma, training in the skills required to become an outdoor guide and now works for the Department of Conversation as a guide on the Milford Track, this last season she was based in a lodge, only accessible by helicopter or a few days walk in. She is now living her dream job and it is indeed just like those jobs offered in the pages of that inspiring magazine.
Fast forward a few years and I come across a book called Wanderlust : A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. I was interested in it, though stronger was the feeling that I should send it into that remote wilderness to my friend, it seemed to describe where she had arrived at. So I did. I then forgot about the book until I saw the name Rebecca Solnit come up recently on NetGalley, she had a new book coming out The Faraway Nearby. Here is the book I will read I thought and requested it.
Some weeks later while in London one Saturday, I discovered The London Literature Festival was on and at 3.30pm, I could attend a talk by Rebecca Solnit speaking about her book The Faraway Nearby. Serendipity? I bought a ticket, a hardback copy of her book and went to listen to the author, curious, though I had never read a word of her writing.
The book is good, but Rebecca Solnit’s ability to captivate an audience is spectacular. I’m almost sorry to admit it, but the live version was even better than the passive written version, which I really enjoyed, the reading experience enhanced significantly by the additional anecdotes and philosophical meanderings of Solnit in person, as she spoke without pause, the voice of a poet.
The talk was hosted by the literary critic Alex Clark, who suggested that the media coined her book not a memoir, but an anti-memoir. Part anti-memoir and part matremoir, it starts with her recounting the gift of 100 pounds of apricots from her mother, one of the few gifts she ever received from her mother and not disconnected from the fact that her mother is undergoing something of a personality change since her Alzheimer’s diagnosis. She lays them out on her bedroom floor, wanting to appreciate their abundance, but instead embraces a soon to be dissected anxiety.
“The fruit on my floor made me start to read fairy tales again. They are full of overwhelming piles and heaps that need to be contended with, the roomful of straw the poor girl in Rumpelstiltskin needs to spin into gold overnight, the thousand pearls scattered in the forest moss the youngest son needs to gather in order to win the princess, the mountain of sand to be moved by teaspoon. The heaps are only a subset of the category of impossible tasks that included quests, such as gathering a feather from the tail of the firebird who loves at the end of the world, riddles, and facing overwhelming adversaries.”
Nature essays, how stories create the narrative of our lives, philosophical meanderings, her chapters weave in and out of many subjects, flitting here and there, as she recounts pieces of a year that passed whilst her mother was regressing. She contemplates and then makes an escape to Iceland, mentions friendships and her passion for visual art, the occasional Buddhist legend, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley and her mother Mary Wollstonecraft, pain and leprosy likening her narrative to a Russian matryoshka doll, even going so far as to repeat chapter names in reverse, once she arrives at the hard core (the doll that has no doll).
“My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and then tried to get herself back from a daughter.”
There are many anecdotes, insights and great lines throughout the narrative, however Solnit stops short of going too deep into her subject, she observes the apricots and watches how they change, just as she does her mother, but stops short of looking too deep into the past, of really describing their relationship and how they were with each other, it is implied, not described.
I understand this reluctance, for that percentage of women out there who had the kind of relationship with their mother that Solnit did, there will be many nods of the head in recognition of what she says without having to go into detail. For the rest, it may seem superficial or even harsh, but they are the words of a mature 58-year-old women, who admits:
“If I had written about her earlier, the story would have had the aura of the courtroom, for I had been raised on the logic of argument and fact and being right, rather than the leap beyond that might be love.”
At the end of the talk, a few people asked questions and at the last minute, but too late I put up my hand, my question deemed to remain silent. Or so I thought. As everyone left the Purcell Room, a woman called Helena sitting next to me who was also visiting from the country for the day, asked me what I had been going to ask. And so I told her – and had a delightful conversation, just as interesting as it might have been, had I asked the author.
The question I wanted to ask was:
Did she believe that a challenging relationship could be a gift, that it could bring her something that she may not otherwise have developed in herself, had it been otherwise?
I suspect the answer is yes, that these relationships do give people something that can be used proactively, if self-awareness is developed to prevent regressing into the negative aspects or effects of those childhood and adulthood experiences. She may not have been able to fix her mother, but it may not be a coincidence that Rebecca Solnit is outspoken and active in terms of her support of nature, the environment, politics and art.
“I didn’t have much sympathy either; it was not that I refused to give it, but that there was none in my equipment yet, perhaps because I had experienced so little of it.”
Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
Claire, you write the most sensitive and insightful reviews with great depth, heart, and soul. You always teach me something about what it means to be human, to have empathy, and to be mindful. Yours is my most favorite blog in the world. Thanks so much for doing what you do.
Well that left me stumped for words! 🙂
Thank you for such kind words of support Diane, they are immensely encouraging and make me think I may be succeeding in overcoming certain writing challenges. Practice certainly helps. Likewise I always look forward to your posts and photos.
Our experiences do shape what we write. I’m certain many of us would rather not have lived through some things,including our own failings… but if we learn our lessons and channel them into whatever form of media one chooses… they can hold attention.
They shape what we write, maybe even the way we write, and in some way shape who we become, with varying degrees of moulding I guess, depending on our level of self awareness and ability to change/adapt. I am sure traces remain of every experience and many of them are visible.
Claire liked your post This is your uncle Brian Your mum Pip has just spent the weekend with me. A friend of mine has written a novel called Rahnuk a horror story exploring the dark side of women. very Jungian you might hate it but you are a great reviewer.Can I get him to send you a copy? What is your Aix address? Lv Br
Sounds macabre but interesting in that I have just finished reading Magda by Meike Ziervogel, in which the blurb reads: “Unloved sons turn their aggression on the outside world. Unloved daughters destroy the people they love, and then themselves.”
I followed that up with Stephen Grosz’s (a Freudian psychoanalyst) The Examined Life, so the book you mention sounds interesting in that context.
It’s always a challenge to read outside the norm, I can only promise an honest review (and no dealines for reading) though doubt I could ever hate a book, though they do sometimes make one wonder about the inspiration behind them. 🙂 I’ll email you my address Brian. Much love, Claire x
I have just nominated your for the Super Sweet Blog Award!
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What a wonderful and touching review. Deeply insightful. 🙂 I can only agree with Diane above 🙂
Thank you Celestine for your kind words.
You are one of the few bloggers whose posts I have to read twice….and I mean that as a compliment. Wonderful review….
Favorite part: “I didn’t have much sympathy either; it was not that I refused to give it, but that there was none in my equipment yet, perhaps because I had experienced so little of it.”
….still thinking about this quote!
There are so many great quotes, I have 47 highlighted sentences on my kindle for this book, I think that might be a record for me.
It is always a pleasure to peruse this ‘ere blog, you consistently compel me to pick up the books you talk about. Leprosy is a word not often seen around WordPress, that was the deciding factor for me.
And what she tells us about it is fascinating indeed, about not being able to feel pain and how essential feeling pain is to our survival.
Beautiful review, Claire! I enjoyed reading about what your friend did. She makes me think of the heroine in Barbara Kingsolver’s ‘Prodigal Summer’ – the heroine who worked in the forest with nature. I loved that quote about the mother trying to get herself back from her daughter. It is so beautiful. I also enjoyed reading your thoughts about how Rebecca Solnit’s talk was better than her book. It is an amazing thing that some writers speak so brilliantly. Thanks for this beautiful review.
My friend would make a great protagonist in a Barbara Kingsolver novel Vishy! When she’s not living in the forest she’s been known to spend time on silent retreat, another interesting experience, especially the coming back into our noisy world part.
There are many wonderful quotes in Solnit’s book and also many excellent spoken quotes, she is a women with some interesting reflections to share. I did really enjoy the book, the difference with her live presence is that she keeps the audience captivated for the entire period and there were moments in the book, particularly when she spoke about stories that were not her own, where she lost that. But a great read that I definitely recommend to those who enjoy nature essays and creative non-fiction.
I really like the personal style of this text. You ask (or would have asked) if challenging relationship could be a gift? I think this is a great question, a question well worth spending some time reflecting upon. Seeing challenging relationships as a gift might lead us to rewrite our personal stories?
Thank you for that, that is what I think Maya Angelou does in her recent memoir Mom & Me & Mom, looking back at her relationship with her mother, with astonishing compassion, understanding and love.
I was disappointed to read a review in a The Guardian, that chose to portray this as being inconsistent with her earlier memoirs rather than recognising what a lifetime of living and reflecting can do to change one’s perceptions of events and people. And in her case, as you suggest, she has indeed rewritten her personal story, and it is every bit as powerful and perhaps more so, looking back from 80 years.
Thank you for coming by and commenting, it is much appreciated.
I had never heard of Rebecca Sonlit before reading this and now I’m eager to pick up her works and get started reading. I love the idea of everything you have discussed here!
I hope you do, I am looking forward to reading more of her as well,
I hope you enjoy it, I am looking forward to reading more of her work as well, she is an engaging speaker and writer and shares her thoughts, insights and experiences in a stream of enticing words and interconnected subjects. Like an art installation on the page, worth spending time with.
I wish I’d read your wonderful review earlier, Claire! You’re so lucky to have heard her speak. I’ll be looking out for her if she ever gives a talk here. Thank you:)
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It was pure luck that I got to hear her speak and I’d already obtained a copy of the book, but wow, talk about add another dimension to reading pleasure, she is captivating, memorable and a remarkable artist.
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