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The Faraway Nearby 

Rebecca Solnit/Viking

Stories are compasses. We navigate by them, build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them.

So says Rebecca Solnit, who excels at steering seemingly unconnected stories. Call this a memoir, but don't expect tidy or even linear reflections on a serious illness, a caving relationship or her mother's debilitating Alzheimers.

Instead, navigate Solnit's meanderings by giving in to the pleasure of a mind's workings. More than melancholy, the personal writings in The Faraway Nearby are only degrees different from the nested structure of her dozen nonfiction books. In each of those, Solnit offered complex connections around environmental disasters and communities of hopeful activists, histories of early photography and the technological Wild West and illuminations of the landscape wars of Yosemite and the Nevada Test Site. If The Faraway Nearby marks a retreat into herself, Solnit does so by looking outward. It's a similar style to her earlier A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Bookends across eight years, these two works are explorations that invite curiosity as readily as her nonfiction.

One-word chapter titles arc themselves toward a middle where "Wound" and "Unwound" shed light on injury, the possibility of healing or loosening. In one section, Solnit's long fascination with the technical hubris of Frankenstein has her digging deeper into Mary Shelley's family — and her own relationship estrangements. An entire chapter uses leprosy sufferers' undetected neural destruction as a metaphor for how tales of empathy are like nerves spiking our own lives. Throughout, a continuous text tumbles along the bottom margin where Solnit wonders why moths feed off the tears of sleeping birds; she calls this a template for sorrow turned into sustenance.

"This book is a history of an emergency and the stories that kept me company," she offers on the last pages. Her own sutured stories are brave. Depicting entanglements with an increasingly demented mother could have devolved into wallowing. Instead, she brings the "faraway near," bridging the distance between private crises and broader environmental or humanitarian campaigns.

Of her own recent surgery, Solnit writes, "I was being pared like an apricot with a bad spot." She repeatedly visits an image of a pile of rotting apricots her brother gleaned from their mother's yard. The decaying fruit symbolizes her rotten year; the apricots eventually find their way into elixirs offered as gifts. She skirts the details of her own illness because she's been told hers is closer to a time bomb than a mortal prognosis. Given the uncertainties, she flees, finding solace in the chill of Iceland where sunrise and sunset are equally uncertain delineations.

Solnit has discovered that her writing has increasingly become a gift to readers as disparate as artists, activists and people dying from cancer. Her forays remind us how we're stitched to tales, mythic and real. It's an enduring read whether you're in the middle of a crisis or coming out of one, seeking perspective.

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Joan Schuman

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