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A Strong West Wind: A Memoir

Gail Caldwell, Author
Gail Caldwell, Author . Random $24.95 (228p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6248-5
Reviewed on: 12/05/2005
Release date: 02/01/2006
Open Ebook - 108 pages - 978-0-307-43047-2
Paperback - 228 pages - 978-0-8129-7256-6
Downloadable Audio - 978-1-4498-9889-2
Open Ebook - 1 pages - 978-1-299-03456-3
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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.

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