switterbug (Betsey)'s Reviews > A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful

A Sense of Direction by Gideon Lewis-Kraus
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Apr 19, 12

Read from April 11 to 15, 2012

The danger of reviewing a book about a secular essayist who walks the 500 mile Santiago de Camino pilgrimage with a heretic friend, then goes on a longer and more difficult one by himself in Shikoku, then plans another one in the Ukraine with his brother and his Rabbi father (the person who haunts all his pilgrimages, as he hasn't come to terms with the emotional pain his father caused when he came out of the closet when Gideon was nineteen and revealed, essentially, that his life had been, to his son, obscure) is: relevance. I do not want to cull its deep meaning, or relate its heartfelt epiphanies (that are often the pat formula of Hollywood movies about pilgrimages), or take the act of reading this radiant memoir and subordinate it to some communal bonding experience or spiritual raison d'être. Nor do I want to press it into any subjective and universal poignancy. Well, okay, ancient roads beckon a young man.

The title of the book is the best place to start, and to be--as in, physical navigation from one fixed point to the next. It also addresses the form of the text; the title is both meditative and concrete. From the first impudent page of the book, I want to be with Gideon--temporally, actively, while it moves from here to there. At times, I wanted to whisper softly in his ear, howl, snort, and tell him that I savored every luminous passage, and adore the David Foster Wallace quote.

The one unifying experience that the pilgrim has with everyone else on a pilgrimage is movement and forwardness to the next point (and often, blisters and other bodily pains). The author's talent of shaping his odysseys into a coherent and thematic story beguiled and compelled me from start to finish.

Whatever higher ground and questions you start out with on a 790 km pilgrimage will bump up against physical exertions, discomfort, and pain that tethers you to real time as you are moving in a geographical direction. You are grounded in the present. The crises of the past and the crossroads of the future are not as urgent as putting one foot in front of the other. There are riveting moments that peel Gideon down to doubt. Lewis-Kraus avoids sweeping clichés about destiny and keeps it real. Getting a grasp of "why" he is doing this creates some arch ruminations about his journey. Part of the purpose of the sojourn is to heal the wounds with his father and move on.

Gideon's terse wit and vigorous pace steer the reader into the story, which unfolds more like a novel than a memoir. That's another reason it worked so well for me (I usually prefer fiction). I was taken by the crisp velocity of a storyline structure, and relieved by the bustling absence of earnest messages. The book opens to Gideon's disaffected years in the Berlin bars and art scene, the hearty glimpses into his profligate stagnation. He describes living in the city as "an infinitely long weekend with your parents out of town ... The old crimes licensed you to ignore the claims of the past; the low cost of living licensed you to ignore the demands of the present; and the future was something that would happen when we moved back to New York, where many of us would once more live in uncomfortable proximity to our actual parents."

His drunk decision to embark on the Camino jump-starts his triumph over inertia. Once you start reading, I can't imagine anywhere you'd rather be than on the itinerant heels of Gideon's brio and in the footfalls of his ambivalence. He has a candid, lyrical way of honoring language and worldview as partners in the fungible context of life and also of provoking you like an impish pied piper. It's a disobedient mix of irreverence and gravitas which will appeal to iconoclasts and offspring and dads of all ages.

I won this book in a lottery giveaway on Shelf Awareness. The review is not biased; it is my own true response.
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Reading Progress

04/11/2012 page 21
6.0% "Oh my stars, I just started this and can't stop. Delicious prose that melts in your mouth. Muscular, enticing, outrageous, totally relatable." 2 comments
04/13/2012 page 75
21.0% "Oh my stars, I just started this and can't stop. Delicious prose that melts in your mouth. Muscular, enticing, outrageous, totally relatable." 1 comment

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Friederike (new)

Friederike Knabe Wow, Betsey, that is quite a review of what sounds like an amazing book!


message 2: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie I second that wow, you do make it seem amazing


switterbug (Betsey) Thank you both! OMG, I already reworked it totally because it was TOO way out there, even for me. I was in dizzy/frenzy mode after finishing the book, but when I decompressed I realized that I needed to bring this down to a more serviceable level. Sometimes I am linguistically autistic. :--)


message 4: by Rock (new) - added it

Rock It is now on my list. I hope the book is as well written and enlightening as your review.


switterbug (Betsey) Thank you, Rock!


message 6: by Birdbath (new) - added it

Birdbath Birdbath the danger in reviewing such a book is that you will forget about the writing and think only of the good looks of the writer


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