'The Faraway Nearby'

Friday, June 14, 2013

Rebecca Solnit. Viking, 259 pp. $25.95

The summer Rebecca Solnit and her two brothers packed up her mother and searched for an alternative living situation, roughly 100 pounds of apricots was given to her courtesy of the tree in her mother's backyard. She could no longer care for them, and so Solnit's brother picked them one by one and delivered them to her in three large boxes.

In order to keep them from rotting or squashing upon each other, Solnit unpacked each apricot from its box and placed it on her bedroom floor. By the end, her bedroom was covered in apricots, "a mountain in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning." Her memoir, "The Faraway Nearby," begins and ends with this fruit as she takes us on a journey through memory.

Solnit's words are exquisite; each chapter weaves a fabric of personal experience, literary or historical anecdote and intimate conversation. We follow her through her mother's Alzheimer's and the accompanying relationship ("At her best she stood up for the rights of the oppressed and at the worst begrudged me anything I had that she thought she hadn't had."), through her diagnoses and treatment of cancer ("It was me, and my fate, this mortal heaven they were exploring with instruments, guided by live X-ray images, working remotely, as though they were embarked upon a moon probe or an ocean-floor exploration.") and through her trip to Iceland ("Mats of flattened gray plant stalks metamorphosed into grasses and great mounds of invasive Alaska lupine smeared whole hillsides violet.").

Through each experience, however, Solnit draws us back to story. The story of her life, the story of her mother's life; even the story of her canning and preserving the apricots only to give the profits as gifts to gracious friends who cared for her in her diagnosis.

"Stories are compasses and architecture," she writes at the very beginning of the book. "We navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story."

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