A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful Hardcover – May 10 2012
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“Beautiful, often very funny… Lewis-Kraus weaves a story that is both searching and purposeful, one that forces the reader, like the pilgrim, to value the journey as much as the destination.” –The New Yorker
“Gideon Lewis-Kraus has written a very honest, very smart, very moving book about being young and rootless and even wayward. With great compassion and zeal he gets at the question: why search the world to solve the riddle of your own heart?" –Dave Eggers
“Here is one of the best and most brilliant young writers in America.” –GQ
“A young writer seeks a cure for his fecklessness by following roads very much taken in this scintillating travel memoir… Lewis-Kraus’s vivid descriptive powers and funny, shaggy-dog philosophizing [yield] an entertaining, thoughtful portrait of a slacker caught up in life’s quest for something.” –Publishers Weekly
“Rightfully anticipated literary debut.” –Nylon
“Nail[s] our collective anxiety—every sentence rings true… Lewis-Kraus is a master.” –Daily Beast
“A complicated meditation on what the physical act of pilgrimage can mean in modern society… [with] moments of brilliant philosophical insight.” –The Onion AV Club
“A witty, deeply felt memoir… an honest, incisive grappling with the brute fact… that we only have one life to live… sparkles with tight, nearly aphoristic observations." –The Boston Globe
“Lewis-Kraus does nothing if not dazzle on the sentence level. But his commentary isn't just pretty; it's deeply self-aware.” –The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Gorgeously written… [Lewis-Kraus is] aimless, sure, but meticulously, obsessively, beautifully so.” –The Rumpus
“Physically, Lewis-Kraus’ feats are staggering, but more so is how fully and fluidly he recounts them, alongside meditation on his own youthful anxieties and a well-synthesized history of the act of pilgrimage.” –Booklist
“If David Foster Wallace had written Eat, Pray, Love, it might have come close to approximating the adventures of Gideon Lewis-Kraus. A Sense of Direction is the digressively brilliant and seriously hilarious account of a fellow neurotic's wanderings, and his hard-won lessons in happiness, forgiveness, and international pilgrim fashion.” –Gary Shteyngart
“This is a brilliant meditation on what the spiritual and fraternal and paternal and communal might mean to a person right now, fueled as it is by the funny, thorny, dreamy, generous, cranky, rigorous, truth-seeking voice of Gideon Lewis-Kraus. For the sake of whatever force or idea or feeling sustains you, make a pilgrimage to your nearest bookstore and buy the goddamn book.” –Sam Lipsyte
About the Author
Gideon Lewis-Kraus has written for Harper's, The Believer, The New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review, n+1, McSweeney's, Bookforum, The Nation, Slate, and other publications. A 2007-8 Fulbright fellowship brought him to Berlin, world capital of contemporary restlessness. He has more or less settled in Brooklyn.See all Product Description
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Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes a travel memoir about pilgrimages. He undertakes three very different ones. The first is the Camino de Santiago in Spain, a more traditional style pilgrimage, during which he is accompanied by a friend and meets many people along the way. The second is to 88 temples around the perimeter of Shikoku, Japan, which he undertakes mostly alone. Then the third is a single event in a Ukrainian village for the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, where he is accompanied by his father and brother.
While I generally tend to enjoy travel memoirs, it's very possible that this book just wasn't for me. Part of the reason for that was that the travel part of the book is more of a backdrop for the author to work out all the issues troubling him about his life. Lewis-Kraus certainly seemed to have been searching for a sense of direction. He clearly didn't have one at the start of the book, but unfortunately didn't seem to find one at the end either - at least not as far as I could tell.
His style of writing mostly irritated me, and I definitely did not like the author at all. The world is made up of all types, but this restless, disaffected, tired-of-the-hedonistic-lifestyle sense of entitlement that the author appears to have made me spend most of my reading time annoyed by him. He seems very proud of his ability to write long, self-indulgent, convoluted sentences. However, he doesn't do it very well. For that kind of style to work, you have to be engaging enough to keep the reader captivated throughout and wanting to read more. Lewis-Kraus does not do that for me at all.
Ironically, the author writes extremely well about other people. When he was describing interactions with people during the Camino and Uman sections, there were moments when I found myself quite caught up in the narrative. However, just when I found myself actually interested, Lewis-Kraus once again began to ramble about himself, and I lost interest ... again
A single, bright gem of a sentence pops out here and there, but in the end, that turned out not to be sufficient. I only finished the book out of an obligation to review it, and it's not something to which I will ever return.
What is the purpose of this book? I am not sure. An otherwise successful writer living a vagabond lifestyle in Berlin deals with the coming-out of his father years prior. Years later the author still harbors resentment and anger toward his father for abandoning a family lifestyle for that of a gay love story. He is not happy for his father; instead, the author is angry and decides, after some heavy drinking, to walk several pilgrimages to cleanse his soul, but instead he meets annoying people, puts up with others' demands, and endures bad weather, blisters, ill-begotten food and totally trashes several poorly-advising guidebooks. It's like he walked the trails simply because "they were there" and not to leave behind personal awakenings for the next willing pilgrim.
There were several flaws to this book. First, the compilation of three pilgrimages come across as forced, as if Gideon made these walks to have a premise for a book. Second, there seems to be an emphasis on the negative events, rather than spiritually cleansing incidents. Third, there's an arrogant, narcissistic tone to this book that turns me off. As much as I love a good adventure, I never had the desire to visit the places in this book, and isn't this normally a reason to recreate trips for oneself, to hopefully have similar experiences along the way? Had not his suffering not taught him anything? Revelations that Gideon experiences are not esoteric revelations, but merely statements that he is lonely, cold, hungry or simply just ticked off at the latest walker accompanying on the adventure.
There were times while reading this book that I also wasn't sure if the author wanted this to be a travelogue or a more meditative work of his observations. I finished this book feeling unsure and confused, feelings that certainly are not expected at the end of a narrative. Although there were times he succeeds at the imagary around him, more often he focuses more on the annoyances of others and his own self-absorbed misery to be an affective conveyor of good karma. His walk across Spain leaves me thinking he was surrounded by mooching adventurists, although he also wrote some gripping passages expected of a travelogue. The walk around a Japanese island, however, comes across as cold, wet and often repetitive. The pilgrimage to Uman, Ukraine has potential but here the voice labors too much on the Hasids around him, although he almost succeeds at making amends with his father. I'd rather he had focused more on just one of the walks--El Camino, for instance-- added more detail to his daily progress along the trail, and polished the prose to leave a more positive narrative. What we have here are three failed attempts at walking old sacred trails to find God's forgiveness (or enlightenment) and the reader wonders what the purpose of this book is.
Does this sound harsh? Perhaps. I read this book over several days and never looked forward to resuming reading this. Gideon could have stayed in Berlin and focused on finding himself in that city. I think he could have succeeded finding the answers he tried to find along the way.
The book got better as the pilgrimages began. Early on, it reminded me of "Eat, Pray, Love" but with testosterone and not as interesting as that one. Then I turned to the blurbs on the back of the book - apparently I am not alone in the comparison to EPL.
To me, the book was a little pretentious and made the author seem too self-absorbed. Waaaay too much about a difficult relationship with Lewis-Kraus's gay father. Too much minutiae. Too much in-my-face philosophy. No great revelations. There were some humorous spots, and the story was told from the heart, but it won't go into my Top Ten List of Favorite Memoirs, were I ever to create such a list.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus's search for "a sense of direction" took him around the world and back again, literally. In his disaffection with life in the United States, he decided to move to Germany. There he fell in among other young people with a similar disaffection for life in their home countries and pursued the pleasures of the new art and literature scene, which included visits to secret raves and bizarre performance-arts, the indulges of the young and bored. With a friend, he decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, the famous medieval pilgrimage route in Spain.
The meaning and motion he discovered on the Camino led him to other pilgrimages, one in Japan and the other in the Ukraine. In his pilgrimage among pilgrimages, Lewis-Kraus begins to acquire "a sense of direction." He brings himself to confront the underlying factors in his strained relationship with his father, a gay rabbi, and the mangled relationships he has had with others throughout his life. Most importantly, he begins to come to terms and to form a relationship with himself.
I recommend this book primarily as a simultaneously humorous and intelligent meditation on the existential state of modern man. The most important feature of the directionlessness of modern man, what is really at the root of his simultaneously self-love and self-hatred coupled with boredom, is his sense of the absence of God. The attentive reader is constantly painfully aware of this absence throughout this book, which gives such a reader a unique perspective. It seems that even as Lewis-Kraus, and all of us through him, craves meaning, direction, and purpose, he actively avoids it in his active avoidance of anything that might bring him closer to God: the pilgrim masses in Spain, the sutra-reading in the temples in Japan, the fasting and prayer in the Ukraine.
Lewis-Kraus's story is perhaps best summarized as the tragic reality of Nietzsche's proclamation of the death of God: the Overman will not arise from the ashes, only a lonely and bored, hypercritical generation of selfish self-haters, looking for "a sense of direction" but never able to see what is right under their noses.
That's where I stopped reading. I wanted to know about the pilgrimage through France, Spain, and Japan but I couldn't plow past the self indulgence of trustafarian angst.