“… and so, though we did not know it, wandering was our real work anyway” – Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby
I got Rebecca Solnit’s new book, The Faraway Nearby, from the publisher, and I don’t really know what made me request it (although I request a lot of books…). I almost didn’t even read it, despite being approved for the book, because the cover is a little bit dull – or there is something about the dots I don’t like (I think I like the UK cover more). Of course, there’s a saying about the mistaken-ness of choosing books by what they look like.
This book is beautiful and amazing, and I think it’s definitely one of the best books I’ve gotten for free too review (the other contender being Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, which is also lovely). It is, in brief, a memoir of a year in her life when her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease deteriorated and she herself had some health problems, but before you groan and move away from this blog, this is not a grief memoir. Those are just the “plot” or life developments that prompted this book, or perhaps that led her down the path of writing this book.
I liked several things about this book, so I am breaking this review into three sections: its coverage of stories and art, its discussion of personal themes, and the apricot motif.
Stories and art
What the book really is is a meditation, or a series of essays that reflect on through myth and stories, heat and cold, terror and comfort, family and being far away. These reflections are not meandering personal essays – although sometimes they are personal, and they are crafted as essays. Instead, each chapter tells a story that leads you down a beautiful literary and historical path (she is a historian, having written such books as Wanderlust: A History of Walking and River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West), and each chapter has a point. Some of the chapters are about – or draw on – fairy tales, but they don’t explain the plots; they draw out carefully built lessons and stories in themselves. About who we are as humans, and what we tell ourselves and others:
We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them. (29)
[Quoting the Snow Queen story:] “‘I can’t give her any greater power than she already has. Don’t you see how great it is? Don’t you see how people and animals want to serve her, how she has come so far in the world in her bare feet?'” (169)
She even managed to make me interested in – or contemplate being interested in – still life paintings. I am an easily influenced person, particularly about, where I don’t know as much as I should. I have long said that if someone could explain why still life painting is interesting, I would probably like it. Congrats to Ms Solnit because she has done that by explaining the underlying message about time passing, and the elements that painters put into these works that contrast with the stillness – things that represent the stillness of life (clocks, watches, soap bubbles).
Their [the soap bubbles’] presence makes the time in the picture not the years the painter might have looked that way or the hours or days such an arrangement of roses and inanimate objects might have lasted, but brief moments, instants even. (89)
I might hit up a still life exhibition next. In any case, I’ll pay more attention next time I see the paintings (rather than rolling my eyes and muttering something uneducated, as I often do).
And then there are her thoughts on books, writing, creation and the human life:
Books are solitudes in which we meet. (54)
I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away. (64)
On the firm wet sand at low tide your footprints register clearly before the waves come and devour all trace of passage. I like to see the long line we leave behind, and I sometimes imagine my whole life that way, as though each step was a stitch, as though I was a needle leaving a trail of thread that sewed together the world as I went by, crisscrossing others’ paths, quilting it all together in some way that matters even though it can hardly be traced. A meandering line sutures together the world in some new way, as though walking was sewing and sewing was telling a story and that story was your life. (130)
We never tell the story whole because a life isn’t a story; it’s a whole Milky Way of events and we are forever picking out constellations from it to fit who and where we are. (246)
I had a period of time where I was trying to figure out the mother-daughter relationship (in general), and bought a lot of books on this. They are mostly on my self, mostly unread – a souvenir from a part of that journey, which I may return to. This book is a lot about the mother-daughter relationship, but it does not make that relationship either too personal (there aren’t a lot of details about her own relationship with her mother – just particular vignettes) or too general (about all mothers and daughters). I think I will return to this book over time. I liked these quotes on those:
Instead she was buffeted between principles and fears. She took the ought-to-be for the actual and adhered to what she should like and how things should be. It was though she traveled by a map of the wrong place, hitting walls, driving into ditches, missing her destination, but never stopping or throwing out the map. (26)
The book is also not a book about Alzheimer’s disease, although that also has a role. She has some beautiful lyrical descriptions, which are also horrifying, such as this:
I thought of my mother as a book, coming apart, pages drifting away, phrases blurring, letters falling off, the paper returning to pure white… (11)
She is lyrical on pain and depression – not in a way that diminishes either, but in a way that recognises the human element of these things, and gives it a dignified description:
The bigness of the world is redemption. Despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground. To dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest. (30-31)
The moment when mortality, ephemerality, uncertainty, suffering, or the possibility of change arrives can split a life in two. Facts and ideas we might have heard a thousand times assume a vivid, urgent, felt reality. We knew them then, but they matter now. … We answer them, when we answer, with how we lead our lives. (152)
And several of her quotes could be things I would want to write on a card, remember for my life, make my life mission:
Mostly we tell the story of our lives, or mostly we’re taught to tell it, as a quest to avoid suffering, though if your goal is a search for meaning, honor, experience, the same events may be victories or necessary steps. (148)
And then Malcolm asked what each of us is still outrunning and whether we can tell when our predator has been extinct for ten thousand years. (231)
Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. (248) [love how this riffs on and reflects the Whitman quote, although without mentioning it: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”]
What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea? … The quest is the holy grail, the ocean itself is the mysterious elixir, and if you’re lucky you realize it before you dock at the cup in the chapel. (249)
One of the main motifs is the pile of apricots that starts to rot on her floor, and which she turns into preserves and other things – for gifts, for herself – and which represent in a very literal sense the stoppage of time, and the preservation of that time in her life. It is a lovely metaphor, and she develops it from the pile of the fruit:
This abundance of unstable apricots seemed to be not only a task set for me, but my birthright, my fairy-tale inheritance from my mother who had given me almost nothing since my childhood. It was a last harvest, a heap of fruit from a family tree, like the enigmatic gifts of fairy tale: a magic seed, a key to an unknown door, a summoning incantation. Bottling, canning, composting, freezing, eating, and distilling them was the least of the tasks they posed. The apricots were a riddle I had to decipher, a tale whose meaning I had to make over the course of the next twelve months as almost everything went wrong. (13)
… to its metaphor for her book, as a capsule of that time. It could have been cheesy, but it avoids that.
To sum up
If I were looking to be critical, I would note that she uses similes a lot, but I found them to be expressive and only noticed that as I was typing these quotes. Mostly, I loved this book, and I want to read more of her books – I want to live my life with them, and think about them. My main regret is that I only have this on my eReader, and that my copy will expire. I will buy a real copy of this (paper) and will buy her other books.
Definitely 5 stars.