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Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
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A Memoir

A-AStrongWestWindAt her library branch in Amarillo, Texas a young Gail Caldwell watched her literary progress "tracked by tiny flags ascending a papier-mâché mountain." It was a harbinger of a life that would be measured out page by page. As this memoir illustrates, however, Caldwell had some living to do between reading books. Spurred by her literary examples and the climate of her times, this baby boomer set out for college, detoured through Mexico, was arrested for possession of marijuana, and protested the Vietnam War, much to the chagrin of her father, a veteran of Word War II. Caldwell is less concerned with recounting a coming-of-age story than with confronting the question that opens her memoir: "How do we become who we are?"
Random House. 256 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1400062489

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s crafted without postmodern tricks and without fakery: There are no scenes where it’s evident that the writer’s imagination is supplying details and dialogue that memory alone could hardly access after so many years. A Strong West Wind is brave, generous, eloquent, touching and—I feel quite sure of this—true." Charles Matthews

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"A Strong West Wind, Gail Caldwell’s ruminative memoir, eloquently articulates how geographical place and historical moment influence feelings, opinions, and identities. … Caldwell is a private person, an understated narrator less interested in entertaining with a dramatic linear narrative than in cogitating about consequences." Valerie Miner

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"[L]ike all books that owe their glow to the author’s singular sensibility, A Strong West Wind, paragraph by lovely paragraph, sharpens the superficially ordinary into the personally momentous, the epiphanic." Carlin Romano

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"What gives her book such depth and power is the fine blend of real narrative—the lived life—with the written or interior narrative of memory, thought and feeling. Caldwell avoids the narcissism of so much memoir writing by recognizing that one’s personal story has dimensions far beyond the self." Floyd Skloot

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Those are the terms of her memoir: not to reveal little shocks of refabricated intimacies, but instead the issues, institutions and movements that shaped her. It’s refreshing to read a memoir composed of real introspection and insight, a grown-up’s mature perspective on a family and an era." Sandra Scofield

St. Petersburg Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Caldwell provides no details about how and why she ended up in Boston, nor any information about her personal life today. These seem like curious omissions for someone who writes for a newspaper, where telling the whole story is important." Elizabeth Bennett

Critical Summary

It is surprising to discover that A Strong West Wind is Gail Caldwell’s first book. Maybe her position as critic for the Boston Globe (a role for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for Distinguished Criticism) forced her to consider her literary desires more closely. Her patience has paid off in a memoir that succeeds on all levels, from a contextual understanding of her times to her personal relationships. The same touch with metaphor that distinguishes Caldwell’s critical writing shows up here, although some critics noted a tendency towards overwriting. It doesn’t detract from Caldwell’s thoughtful tale of leaving home, however, which her colleagues claimed was well worth the wait.