When Breath Becomes Air, A Really Good Day, Battleworn, The Liar’s Club, Hillbilly Elegy- With few exceptions, the memoir genre has always struck me as self-serving and redemptive, especially when written by someone in the prime of life. Here are some of the exceptions that are worth your time....by Susan Gerhart
Two books for readers who love good writing
Read in Ned column Jan. 30, 2017
By Tom Lambrecht, Nederland
While reading Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the memory of a film I watched three decades ago popped into my head. The movie, a haunting tribute to troubled jazz great Chet Baker, was “Let’s Get Lost” directed by Bruce Weber.
It profiles Baker’s heady rise to fame and his decline as heroin took its inevitable toll on his music and personal life. Really enjoyed the film at the time and haven’t given it a thought since – until now.
Given the complexity of our thought processes, it’s not easy to fathom why one narrative will stimulate the long-buried memory of another. The titles of Solnit’s book and Baker’s film have “getting lost” in common, a state of mind that can be both terrifying and exhilarating. It was more the latter for me in the late ’80s as a twenty-something who was mesmerized by characters like Jack Kerouac and Chet Baker, prodigious talents bent on burning the candle at both ends.
Another factor that might have nudged my recollection is that both Solnit’s book and Weber’s movie, as well as another title I’ve recently enjoyed – Howard Axelrod’s debut novel, The Point of Vanishing – explore what happens when one’s spiritual compass peters out.
Axelrod’s novel is a straightforward coming-of-age story with the complications of a freak accident and a broken heart. While completing his schooling at Harvard, Axelrod finds his comfortable life derailed after losing vision in one eye during a basketball game, compounded by a failed romance while on a fellowship in Italy. What follows is a two-year retreat into self-enforced solitude in a crude cabin in Vermont.
Perhaps because of Axelrod’s privileged background, the book initially comes across as more than mildly narcissistic, even a written exercise in self-pity. However, two things that made the book credible and interesting for me were Axelrod’s unflinching examination of his own emotional turmoil and his skilled relating of his internal dialogue that not only made me sympathetic, but made me consider the twists and turns of my own life.
Going back to Rebecca Solnit’s title: A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a collection of short essays, some personal, some historical, all viewed through a very thoughtful lens. Solnit’s ability to convert her awareness into beautifully austere prose is remarkable. Like Barry Lopez, another of my favorite writers in this vein, she has the ability to write about self without self-consciousness and to use dispassionate language that somehow magically makes the stories all the more passionate.
There is some miracle of tone produced by both writers like that of a vintage guitar, a marvelous sense of timelessness. Finally, she has a gift for slinging metaphors which is a talent that book reviewers can appreciate. A few of them falter, but most are zingers.
The chapters that are personal anecdotes are interspersed with four chapters bearing the same title: “The Blue of Distance.” They chronicle seekers like Cabeza de Vaca, who was famously lost after venturing from Spain in the quest for gold and in a twist of fate became a slave, as well as restless conceptual artist Yves Klein and others whose careers and pitfalls are lovingly held to the light and melded into a seamless whole.
Both Solnit’s and Axelrod’s books are highly recommended for readers who love good writing, especially those who enjoy the “heady” experience of prose that stimulates your own internal story-telling.
Tom Lambrecht is a Library Assistant at the Nederland Community Library.