The Faraway Nearby/Rebecca Solnit (Reflections)/and thank you, Katrina Kenison

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Several years ago, my father, a talented gardener, asked me what I wanted most, and I said hummingbirds. A few weeks later, there he was—digging a hole near my front door and planting a trumpet vine.

It's become a monstrosity, since—making the overtaken house look like something straight out of a Grimm's fairy tale. My husband threatens to do away with the vine. I trim it back, faithfully. I say, "But the hummingbirds will come." And this summer they've come in force.

Earlier today I was sitting outside, reading Rebecca Solnit's The Faraway Nearby, when one particularly curious hummer came near and stayed long enough for me to take its portrait. It was as if Solnit herself had engineered the scene, or given it to me. I own every single Solnit book. I take great pleasure in them. And I'm pretty sure that she'd find a story here—in the monstrous vine and the sweet visitation, the madly fluttering wings and the stopped heart of the reader who looked up in time.

The Faraway Nearby is Solnit at her most fierce and, often, her most fine. This is memoir intellectualized. It's Solnit reflecting on the gift of apricots—countless apricots—that came her way just as she was entering her final chapters as a daughter. Held within this frame are other stories—of the man who left Solnit at a terrible time, of Solnit's own experience with illness, of a trip taken to Iceland, of a river ride. In-depth investigations of fairy tales and Frankenstein, hot and cold, forgiveness and understanding, surviving and dying bind. You cannot anticipate Solnit's mind. You cannot think, even if you feel as if you are on solid, shared ground (the story of Frankenstein, for example, or the biography of Virginia Woolf) that you know where she is headed. But you can trust that, no matter how far away from her seeming purpose Solnit goes, she will remember where she started from, and she will loop back in, put in another stitch or two, even as she warns against pretty seaming.

Solnit's evaluation of her mother often bristles. Her characterization of Alzheimer's alarms. The old boyfriend doesn't get away with much. But there's so much, so much, to Solnit's intellect, her search to understand, her desire to get things right, her ability to transcend herself, and she's brilliant with those apricots—bracing and authentic.
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 tales: 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.
I am glad to have read this book. Glad that I fought for the time.

And I am glad, too—grateful—for Katrina Kenison, who was one of the very first readers of Handling the Truth, who was the very first person who put words to it, and who has shared my quest, throughout the years, to write and understand memoir. Katrina has more friends in the e-universe than I can summon a quantifier for. And today she blesses me by sharing Handling with her readers on a blog that—newly updated—has something for everyone. She's even offering a give-away.

That's all happening here. Please take a look.


Adrienne said...

I was so pleased to see your book on Katrina's site today! I found her a little over a year ago, and drink in her words. I also got to spend two weeks with the hummingbirds - on the deck at my mother in law's they come in abundance! I've grown to love watching and trying to photograph them! I'm digesting your lovely book - will write to you when I know how to say what I feel about it!

Becca said...

I am watching every day for hummingbirds to come and sup at the feeder filled with the home brewed nectar. I have seen two, hovering scouting the territory, I know they are imbibing because the nectar disappears, but they must be doing it in secret.

I love Katrina Kenison.. Her Magical Journey has been my Bible for this past year.

Handling the Truth waits for me in all it's bright shiny orange-ness. Tomorrow...

Richard Gilbert said...

Nicely summarized. Solnit's "anti-memoir" amazes but it is hard to describe.

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