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A Strong West Wind: A Memoir Paperback – Jan 9 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This is a coming-of-age memoir by a prize-winning book critic of the Boston Globe who writes, consciously and romantically, as a surviving member of her generation: the one that "was wrapped in the flag long before we set fire to it." Born in 1951, in Amarillo, Tex., Caldwell was raised by patriotic American conservatives who watched in horror as their pride and joy became radicalized by the peace and liberationist movements of the late '60s and '70s. Carried along on a tide of sex, drugs and political protest that alienated her not only from her parents but from herself as well, it wasn't until her late 20s that she began to see that she wanted to think and write more than she wanted to go on honoring the impulses of the rebelling moment. Yet, true to the Platonic ideal of never disavowing old loves, Caldwell wouldn't trade what she has lived through for the world. As a direct result of her abiding loyalty to her own past, she has arrived at a considerable piece of wisdom: "The trick is to let a time like ours shape you utterly without... [making] a career out of estrangement." Her book is an attempt to convey all the parts of the experience.But as this is a memoir, not a polemic, no part of it is without its own complications. Caldwell's memories are laced through with an overwhelming nostalgia for the Texas where she herself could not make a life. Her adolescent dreams, she tells us, almost always "involved breaking free of those lonesome, empty plains, whatever it took." Yet her prose is riddled with longing for the father with whom she identifies, and who is the very personification of a Texas—full of grit, courage and the refusal to knuckle under—that she insists on finding worthy of admiration. The nostalgia is both enriching and problematic, as it almost inevitably leads this writer into the sea of rhetoric. And while the rhetoric is not deep enough to sink a ship, it is sufficient to leave the author floating too often in "poetic" abstraction when she should be grounded in prose that is both penetrating and precise.Nonetheless, Caldwell comes through as a wise and winning woman—her descriptive passages on college life in Austin in the '60s and '70s are wonderfully smart, moving and sympathetic—and she emerges from A Strong West Wind a memorable narrator. (Feb. 14)Vivian Gornick's latest book is The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* "How do we become who we are?" asks Caldwell at the outset of this gorgeously written memoir about a life rooted in the Texas panhandle. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for the Boston Globe, Caldwell devotes a pleasing portion of this metaphor-rich, beautifully structured reminiscence to her childhood enthrallment to books, particularly war novels. Inevitably, her abiding love of literature is central to her tale, but it is war--"the brilliant, sinister power of myth" that perpetuates it, and the psychic wounds that are passed from one generation to the next--that truly shapes this arresting examination of one boldly improvised life and the conflicting forces that defined twentieth-century America. A warrior in her own right, Caldwell overcame childhood polio, rejected academia, stood up for feminism, and protested the Vietnam War. Caldwell locates the source of her intractability in amazing stories about her determined grandparents, serenely powerful mother, and tough father, a laconic veteran of World War II and a mean poker player. We are who we are, Caldwell's memoir reveals, by virtue of inheritance, place, the times, and the core self, that mysterious wild card. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
I wish she would write more, more and more
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Gail was born in the Bible Belt of the Texas Panhandle in 1951. Stricken with polio shortly before the discovery of the Salk vaccine, learning to stand up, then remain upright and eventually walk was a real struggle for this tenacious young girl. Her sister Pam, older by two years, taught Gail to read at age four, and this opened the door to a magical world for her. She seemed to absorb books; they were her escape as well as her internal destination.
Gail was a shy child in a fairly boring town where the winds howled ominously and the horizon seemed to go on forever. She loved fiction, especially war novels; as a teenager she wrote sad poetry and dreamed of leaving the barren Texas landscape behind her.
The quiet bookworm rebelled as adolescents often do. Smoking, rock-and-roll, and hanging out with friends became her new interests. Her first serious boyfriend --- who appropriately could be called a parent's nightmare --- hung around for two years. The lifelong closeness she had felt to her father dissolved as he and Gail seemed to be on opposite sides of every issue.
She enrolled at Texas Tech, but her years of serious reading did not translate into her being a model student. She switched majors every semester and was more interested in world events, especially the Vietnam War, than her studies. She was arrested in 1970 for possession of marijuana; the charges were later dropped but the arrest widened the schism with her father.
Gail drifted into the antiwar movement and moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. In the summer of 1971 she hitchhiked to Berkeley and wandered around for several weeks, absorbing both the atmosphere and the philosophy of the area. She returned to college, only to drop out just weeks shy of graduation. Gail seemed at loose ends. She spent some time in Mexico with friends, participated in the women's movement, and even played in an all-girl honky tonk band. Finally she returned to the University of Texas, where she was an American Studies student in graduate school.
Against the backdrop of Gail's growing up and rebellion, she contrasts the lives of her family both as she perceived them as a young child and how she eventually came to understand the reality. It's quite clear that the author believes we are heavily influenced by our geographic landscape, by the books we read and internalize, and by the obligations and restrictions placed upon us at developmentally critical times in our lives. By looking back through her life in an in-depth, soul-searching manner, Gail seems to have arrived at a solid appreciation of her family as well as an understanding of the complexities that shape us all.
--- Reviewed by Carole Turner
This book amazingly evokes the Amarillo of many years ago. Yes, the winds were/are horrific. Yes, the political climate was/is ultraconservative. I could not help but have an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia for many of the feelings, landmarks, and memories she, in my opinion, lovingly conveys. I was taken aback that some of the other reviewers appear somewhat offended by the author's rendition of the city. However, Amarillo is not for everyone. Because Gail chose not make it her permanent home, I viewed this as a testament to her desire and courage to outstandingly succeed (come on, people, we're talking the Pulitzer here) in a world and profession probably unavailable to her in the Texas Panhandle.
Broad strokes rather than brass tacks. For those unacquainted with the northern plains of Texas, the prose is beautifully evocative. I was fascinated with the successful combination of lyricism, southern "down hominess", and, yet, the in-your-face bravado of a Texas Panhandle native. It was very telling to see how her world of books/reading shaped her life/outlook in tandem with the Caldwell family dynamics. Viewing one's youthful world more through a parent's eyes is hardly specific to the South, even if it is, perhaps, more of a mainstay. The fierce independence attributed to most Texas natives comes later in life--bent and shaped by a tribal sense of--if not "us against them", at least "we are unique"--as one begins to formulate views of his/her relationship to the rest of the country and world.
Bravo, Gail. I look forward to another book. Congratulations on your many achievements.
What I found inside A STRONG WEST WIND by Gail Caldwell was an astonishing array of similarities to my own early existence, yet creating polar opposite results in later years. Caldwell's early cognizance of life in the panhandle mirrored my own on so many levels; both having a deep love of books, considering in some innate way our own domicile to be the center of the universe, an unquestioning admiration for our fathers, an upbringing deeply rooted in faith; and yet, despite these similarities, our own personal end results of world views hold gaping divergence.
I was at once, saddened by this book; that Caldwell would deviate so far from her conservative upbringing to embrace such things as war protests and the women's movement; and simultaneously touched by her visions of life and the poignancy of her perspectives. This is illustrative proof that personal discernment is in no way predicated on circumstantial similarity.
Though our views of the world are as far removed as is imaginable, I felt a kinship to the author and must admit with clarity that she is a brilliant and poetic writer. It has been thousands upon thousands of printed pages since I have found a wordsmith whose prose flowed with such emotion and fluidity. Political and social differences aside, it would be disingenuous of me and I would be failing to accurately represent this book if I did not give it the 5 stars it deserves.