A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful by Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a memoir of the author walking a famous pilgrimage trail while working on his own issues. While this book can be considered a travelogue, I believe it is something more.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus finds himself in Berlin after breaking up with his girlfriend in San Francisco. Still feeling empty, Gideon embarks on a quest to feel whole. He immerses himself in Berlin’s artistic culture but despite the free-spirited nature of his circle, he still feels like an outsider (A Jew… in Berlin?).
The famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela Pilgrimage in Spain has Gideon’s name written all over it, and together with friend/author Tom Bissell they go on an arduous 500 mile journey on foot. While there, Gideon contemplates the nature of the pilgrimage and continues on to Japan for the 88 Buddhist temples on the Japanese island of Shikoku where his real quest beings: to mend his relationship with his father.
A Sense of Direction is less about the scenic road and more about the internal journey towards self discovery. At first I was excited to read this book (until I saw the comparison to Eat, Pray, Love which I didn’t care for); the writing is sharp and funny and Mr. Lewis-Kraus lives a life that could only resemble a Larry David sitcom (son a rabbi whose father decided to come out of the closet after years of marriage. And by the way, his mother is a rabbi as well, but he’s secular).
The more I read, the more I enjoyed the literary aspect of the book and was entertained by the travel writing. On the other hand, the author comes across as indulgent, a perpetual teenager with no means of support, albeit funny, good natured and interesting, but angry over his father’s perceived betrayal of the family unit. The excellent travelogue stops in strange places, skips days/weeks to either continue or go on a tangent as if nothing happened. The impression I got was that the pilgrimage was an excuse to travel (as it was in olden days) and meet women (a good excuse), but wasn’t essential to his personal growth.
A testament of Lewis-Kraus’ writing ability is that every 50 pages or so I wanted to grab his collar, shake him and make him realize he is not living inside a reality show (the stupidest genre of TV imaginable). To his credit, Lewis-Kraus does come to some sort of a realization at the end of his journey that not everyone is against him, and that there is more than one way to skin a cat–or go on a pilgrimage.
While I’ve never attempted any official pilgrimage, I have traveled quite a bit with a backpack in tow. The most interesting and memorable experiences I have had are to do with the people I met. I saw some gorgeous scenery, had some incredible experiences, tasted some of the nastiest foods but the best memories are those of the folks I met on the road. There is nothing like meeting someone in Rio de Janeiro, and then seeing them a month later in a deserted one-paved-street town in Argentina or a year later on another trip. The author had these experiences, which are memorable and to most people the highlight of their trips, but chose to write little about them to err on the side of philosophy.
I truly enjoyed the book when the author writes about his experience in the three pilgrimages he took. When it came time for the philosophical perspectives I had the urge to put the book down, take a deep breath and curse in frustration using several foreign languages. Scaring big footed hobbits, smiling cats and any black sheep who might be listening.
At the end, I was glad I read A Sense of Direction. Gideon Lewis-Kraus is an immensely talented writer, just that I felt he lacked some perspective to tackle on such an immense emotional journey and write about it. I think the comparison to Eat, Pray, Love is uncalled for. This is a much better book, better written, less whiny and somewhat deeper.
- 352 pages
- Publisher: Riverhead
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1594487251