Friday, June 29, 2012

A Sense of Direction

Sometimes, there's a man.... Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place...

Sometimes there's a book or a story or an article that comes along at just the right moment for you, the reader, and it hits a nerve or sparks something in your brain that triggers some kind of alternative, deeper thinking that you normally don't get in your every day. (C'mon, I know it's not just me.) Reading definitely provides me with an endorphin rush - happy little floaties coursing through my head - pretty much regardless of the content, (Well, JPatt excepted, of course) but sometimes it goes further than that, into something more, I don't know, elemental, perhaps. For a variety of reasons, Gideon Lewis-Kraus' debut work of nonfiction/memoir/travelogue, A Sense of Direction, was just the right book for me in this particular time and place.

In his late-20’s, Gideon found himself living a rather pointless, aimless life in Berlin, writing a bit and hanging out in the art scene there. (There's a certain degree of privilege here, be forewarned - you don't just breeze through Berlin, Spain, and Japan on typical 20-something bank accounts. I'm just sayin'.) At this stage in his life, he was feeling like he was constantly in a state of crisis - although, as a friend pointed out, most of us feel the same way:
Everybody is in a crisis all the time and everybody, at the same time, under some sort of cover, is also pretty much doing what they want. Life is the crisis of doing what you want.
So, on a whim - a drunken whim - his friend Tom Bissell invited him to go on a (relatively secular) walking pilgrimage – the Camino de Santiago de Compostela - across the whole of Spain. He decided to go because he both wanted to and had no reason not to, but also because he was not sure what he’d find along the way. Since it was a pilgrimage after all, he was perhaps expecting some kind of profound revelation about himself. (What he first discovered was that he liked pilgrimages.) But as he walked - and thought a lot about his own life - he gradually came to a better understanding of himself, how he deals with those around him, and how important the people he loves truly are to him. The result is an amazing book of self-discovery that will resonate for anyone (especially fellow Generation X-ers) who has ever felt adrift on the seas of life…

I know, I know, I usually hate it when someone tries to sell me on a memoiry, self-discovery-type book - and I'm sure that there will be detractors out there for whom this will not resonate in any meaningful way - but there was something about Gideon's story that just hit me right. For one, he perfectly captured that feeling of aimlessness I've felt at various points in my own life - this is no feel-good, mid-life crisis story about finding love in Italy, blah blah blah. (In fact, Gary Shteyngart said, "If David Foster Wallace had written Eat, Pray, Love...") It's all about the, well, sense of mis-direction so many of us have had in our lives and the circuitous paths we often take to get around to the point of it all. Of the three pilgrimages he ultimately went on, Gideon summarized them as such:
The first was about finding a sense of direction. The second was about returning to where you started. The third would be about knowing where we stand.
Restless & hopeful, GLK
After the Camino, Gideon decided that he would attempt another walking pilgrimage on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four major islands, that would take him to each of the 88 temples that ring the island's coast. This walk he did on his own (for the most part) and it proved to be far more mentally taxing and ultimately introspective than the Camino, hence his assessment that it was "about returning to where you started." Which for him was really about his complicated relationship with his gay rabbi father. (Not a typo or joke, that.) I'm sure that lots of us have complicated relationships with our respective pater familias, but very few can boast such complexities as that. I don't think Gideon set out to write a book about his father - in fact, he has said that it was originally meant to be a travelogue of sorts - but much like going on a pilgrimage itself, there's a process to everything. And the process of writing this book lead him to a better, healthier understanding of his own relationship with his dad.  

So, I'm not saying that I relate to Gideon because we share gay, rabbinical fathers, but I did have a complex & often frustrating relationship with my late father. It's good, in a way, to see that this is both common and could have actually be far worse. (I jest, folks.) And, not to mention, I pretty much floated through my 20's, not really sure of where I was heading or what sort of "career path" I should have been on. (My travels brought me to New Orleans, a bookstore, and, ultimately, here to my life in SD, so, not too shabby.) The thing about Gideon's story is that it is so very like many of the stories I've heard from people in my generation - we've all been squeezed into this life track of college, working, & ultimate ennui that many of us ended up just coasting along until we sort it out on our own, in one way or another. I don't know what this says about us, but pretty soon we're all going to be running the planet - if we aren't already - so we've got that going for us.

Anyhow, this book hit me in a certain way - I don't know if it will do the same for you, it's not perfect, by any stretch, but then again, what story is? It didn't change my life, but it did give me a little bit of perspective over my own travels. Which was nice.

Gideon's interview on NPR's Weekend Edition.
For more on the Camino, see Martin Sheen's film The Way.

PS: thank The Stranger for that opening quote.

Friday, June 22, 2012

A.M. Homes

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. HomesSometimes you just have to share how incredibly awesome a book is, right away. I literally just finished reading A.M. Homes' forthcoming novel, May We Be Forgiven (October 2012, Viking) and was just floored flat by it. It has a perfect blend of hilarious absurdity - and I mean, laugh-out-loud, snorting-in-public, accidentally-passing-gas-kind of absurd - and a truthful, tempered sadness to it. Or more of a thread of reality-based grief, really. (Just calling it "sad" both doesn't do it justice and is actually totally inaccurate.) It's a book about dealing with grief in the only way we know how - and this is different for every person, of course. 

And sometimes we deal with that by writing a book about Richard Nixon, adopting senile adults, surfing the web for illicit liaisons with local housewives, and staging bar mitzvahs in small, South African villages. You never know.
More to come, I promise.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Things That Are

Ahoy there. The book of the day today is Amy Leach's brand-spanking new essay collection, Things That Are, published by Milkweed Editions. You need this book, friend.

First off, it's a beautifully crafted little thing that fits in the palm of your hand. (If your hand is larger than a child's but smaller than Andre the Giant's.) It's also got lots of pictures - its pages are filled with fantastic pen-and-ink illustrations by artist Nate Christopherson that are perfectly suited in their weirdness to Leach's prose. The essays (I guess that's what they are, even though they read more like the strangest dream journal you could put together) are all weird, funny, oddly poignant, and plainly stunning little vignettes about the natural world surrounding us. Leach uses words describing animals and plant life that you swear aren’t real, only to discover, to considerable glee, your linguistic and ecological ignorance. (There's a great glossary in the back with words like "argle-bargle," whimwhams," and "radish ministers.") There’s something about the way all of her sentences come together that feels comfortable and almost euphoric, as if we’re shrugging our way into an old coat on the coldest day of the year. Each essay unfolds as if from the lips of an odd, old-tymey storyteller sitting at the edge of the firelight – you know all these things to be true, but you’ve just never heard it all put so eloquently.

Go on now - go and find this book for yourself. It has the Book Catapult guarantee. (Word on the street is that it will be an Indie Next List title for July 2012, with a blurb from yours truly. The blurb will read a lot like what I wrote here, so don't be alarmed.)