Life, Death and Che Guevara

Rebecca Solnit is one of the most unusual writers of our time.

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It’s hard to label Rebecca Solnit. She’s a journalist, an activist, a historian, an essayist and the author of fourteen books of nonfiction. You may have heard of River of Shadows, which won the National Books Critics Circle Award, and Wanderlust, a book about walking. But she has also covered protest, disaster and the environment, each time getting to the heart of the topics by dancing around them, making connections that, frankly, no one else makes.

This month, Solnit releases The Faraway Nearby, her most personal book yet — a meditation on life and death sparked by the death of her mother and her own cancer scare. Needing an escape from the “solemnity of illness,” she travels to Iceland, and discusses the life-changing pilgrimages of Che Guevara and Mary Shelley. Che was inspired to help people when he witnessed the isolation of the leper colonies as a young man. Shelley’s Frankenstein was ultimately an allegory of the author’s own struggles with childbirth and motherhood.

Solnit ties together her own experience with these anecdotes, suggesting that travel gives us a chance to understand our lives. “The bigness of the world is redemption,” she writes. “Distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.”

One reviewer famously wrote “Move Over Joan Didion” in reviewing Solnit’s latest book in 2004, and the comparison is apt. Like Didion, Solnit grew up in California and currently resides in San Francisco. The Faraway Nearby reflects some of Didion’s writing about place, particularly her portrait of California in The White Album and her two memoirs of loss, The Year of Magical Thinking and more recently, Blue Nights.

But Solnit isn’t as concerned with the concrete facts of loss. Rather, she searches for the meaning behind her own tragedy, whether that means seeking out patterns in the lives of others or reading into the teachings of Zen Buddhism or stories of survival in inclement environments, either physical and emotional.

If you delight in the circular and repetitive writing of Virginia Woolf and W.G. Sebald, you’ll love The Faraway Nearby, a rumination that begins with the isolation of illness and place and ends with the stories we tell ourselves in order to live. As Solnit writes on the first page: “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.”

Further Reading:

  • Solnit’s diary on visiting the nuclear plant at Fukushima after the tsunami at The London Review of Books.
  • Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina at The Nation.
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost explores the pleasures of the unknown, from Greek Tragedy to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
  • Planning a trip to San Francisco? For a unique visit, plan your vacation with Solnit’s San Francisco Atlas.
  • In A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit explores the incredible communities that arise as a result of disaster.

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