Hotel Review: Inn by the SeaAugust 8, 2012
Book Review: How to Be a WomanAugust 17, 2012
A good friend of mine who works in television passed on her press copy of Gideon Lewis-Kraus’ A Sense of Direction, and I’m sure she sent it to me because, on the surface, it appears to be the story of the author’s participation in the centuries-old tradition of pilgrimage to Santiago, Spain—a place that my friend knows is dear to my heart. (It is the city where my cousin Finita lives and where I’ve spent a lot of time over the years.) But surfaces can be deceiving: shortly after I started reading Lewis-Kraus’ book, I realized that—much like the author himself as he sets out on his odyssey—I had completely misjudged what was about to happen.
In the end, A Sense of Direction was less about the physical journey that he took than his internal pilgrimage, a lifelong quest to get from point A (the headspace in which he was angry, disappointed, and annoyed at his father for a variety of reasons too complex to go into here, and where he nursed and flaunted his emotional wounds like a badge of honor) to point B (where he hoped to embrace forgiveness or, at the very least, equanimity).
It took him much more than a month-long walking expedition across northern Spain to achieve this goal. Not long after he and his friend Tom arrived in Santiago, Lewis-Kraus set off on a second more grueling pilgrimage, largely by himself—circumnavigating the Japanese island of Shikoku to visit 88 monasteries, at times climbing steep mountain paths in the middle of a snowstorm. For his third voyage, he convinces his father and brother to join him in Uman, Ukraine, to attend a religious quasi-Woodstock, where they are surrounded by ultra-fervent Hasidic Jews, whom the author seems to alternately resent and embrace.
There are parts of the book that drag—especially when Lewis-Kraus ties himself up in theoretical knots discussing the metaphysics of family relationships and personal intention—but these were more than offset by his wit. Take, for example, his description of the interaction that he and his grandfather Max had with a Japanese pilgrim, when Max tagged along for the first few days of that pilgrimage: “None of them really speak English, but we have a nice kinetic chat with a man at T8 in which he tells us that until last month he worked as either a sashimi chef or a devil-may-care accountant; Max and I differ in our interpretations of his gestures. But Max has a kooky gestural lexicon himself. ‘Eat,’ for example, seems to involve using a two-by-four to stir a giant vat of congealed oatmeal, then raising a helmet-sized iron ladle not to your mouth but toward your hair.”
Mostly, Lewis-Kraus is engaging, smart and brutally honest company. While he is not shy about criticizing and even mocking others along the way, the most frequent target of his exasperation is himself (for having mocked everyone else along with other reasons). It was his frankness that had me cheering for him, hoping that once all of the pilgrimages were over, he’d find the redemption and peace he was so desperately seeking.
A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful by Gideon Lewis-Kraus (Riverhead Books/Penguin USA – May 2012)