Andrew Solomon’s fifth book is a compilation of travel essays and foreign reporting. Several entries were written in the 1990s, and at least two bear datelines from a country that no longer exists. On occasion, “Far and Away” feels stale and bloated, an overstuffed monument to authorial vanity, built from old magazine articles. But more often, this is an improbably well-timed collection.
Arriving at a moment when the ideological and political gaps between us can seem insurmountable, Solomon’s imperfect yet deeply humane book cuts against the grain, urging readers to exit their comfort zones and engage with new people and unfamiliar points of view. His message is at once idealistic and pragmatic: “Circling the wagons is not only impossible in a globalized world, but finally perilous.”
This belief — that searching for common ground is better than building walls — is not new to Solomon’s work. In “The Noonday Demon,” his 2001 National Book Award winner, he chronicled his harrowing bouts with depression and described what he learned by investigating how others cope with the condition. More recently, in the National Book Critics Circle prizewinner “Far From the Tree,” Solomon wrote about the challenges of raising children who are physically or emotionally different from many of their peers, spawning an online community of readers who share personal stories in the hopes of helping others.
The best chapters in “Far and Away” embody this spirit, enlightening us about us extraordinary events, customs and people.
In one of the book’s first pieces, the American-born Solomon and some Russian friends are among history’s witnesses to the collapse of the Soviet Union: “It is only a handful of tanks, but we leap on the fronts of them and ride to the Parliament. … The demonstrations have seemed largely symbolic until now, a gesture no more meaningful than a work of politicized art. Suddenly, the force of physical power is with us.”
Later, he’s in Mongolia, demonstrating the wonders of his rental car to a boy who hasn’t seen many motor vehicles: “I showed him how one could rotate the handle to make the window go up (he thought this amazing).” He also meets some “Mongolian reindeer people, the shamanist Tsaatan,” who saddle up one of their animals for Solomon to ride. “Reindeer sway as they trot,” he reports.
Another entry finds him in Senegal, where an “old, large priestess” leads him through a ritual meant to alleviate depression. This includes ram’s blood, two roosters and, on Solomon’s part, some public nudity: “I felt so up! … Even though I didn’t believe in the animist principles behind it, all of these people had been gathered together, cheering for me, and it was exhilarating.”
Content-wise, these pieces don’t always have a lot in common, and individually some aren’t terribly effective: The what-I-ate-while-aboard-a-sailboat-off-the-Turkish-coast article is an exasperating example of glossy travel magazine piecework, and the sole entry reported in the U.S. is slight and forgettable. But there’s a democratic spirit that binds the best of these chapters, and, in the aggregate, Solomon’s reporting from far-flung places is surprisingly powerful, a bighearted response to a divisive era.
Kevin Canfield is a writer and critic in New York City.
Far and Away
By: Andrew Solomon.
Publisher: Scribner, 578 pages, $30.