Friday, April 24, 2009

Under a Wing

Under a Wing: a memoir
Reeve Lindbergh (1998, Dell)
I’ve always been a fan of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's books, and an admirer of both Lindberghs' accomplishments. Their youngest child's memoir rounds out our picture of the remarkable partnership between Charles A. Lindbergh and his wife, as fliers, writers, and parents. The five Lindbergh children who were born after their eldest brother's death were raised in a comfortable seclusion dictated by their parents' conservatism and yen for privacy, which counterbalanced their airborne daring: the family's old stone house on the Connecticut shore had a number of servants but no television, a milieu that was already old-fashioned then, and is now almost beyond imagining. Somehow I'm not surprised to find out that Charles Lindbergh bought only brass paperclips (because they're rustproof) and used only permanent ink; but I was mildly surprised to learn that after his death, Anne Morrow Lindbergh never finished another book.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness
Daniel Gilbert (2005, Vintage Books)
A successful popularization of mildly arcane research, in the vein of Freakanomics. The research in this case comes from psychology labs. Gilbert writes entertainingly about the ways our minds trick us into incorrect predictions about our future mental states, including what we'll enjoy and what we should dread. The common example is coming to the end of a meal so full you can't imagine you'll ever be hungry again--nearly everybody has had that thought, and has been wrong every time. Daniel Gilbert has the bones of several hundred studies in his end notes to support his views on why that is, but the reader can probably dispense with that and just enjoy his prose, which zips right along.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Angus Wilson (1956; reprinted 2005, New York Review Books)
If this novel is Trollope-like (Trollopian? Trollopezoid?), and I believe those who say it is (namely Jane Smiley, in her introduction to the paperback edition), I'm going to have to brush up on my Trollope. As it turns out, I like a nice page-and-a-half of dramatis personae, six of whom are dead, being gradually (and I do mean gradually: new characters are still turning up halfway through the book) whisked by Wilson into a single (if discursive) narrative. His protagonist, Gerald Middleton, is a sixty-something historian with a long-lost ex-mistress, a bizarrely whimsical estranged wife, and three rather complicated grown children. The social networks through which they move include a couple of different sets of the self-consciously cultured; the Historical Association of Medievalists; in a flashback, a land-owning family on whose estate a certain historical artifact was found; some faithful retainers and honest sons of toil; and a couple of gay or bisexual young men with a propensity for free-loading. Apparently Wilson was among the first 'respectable' novelists to include that final ingredient, but it fits perfectly well into the way everybody is related to everybody else--even Gerald, somewhat in spite of himself. High craft, a fair wit, highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

At Large and At Small

At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays
Anne Fadiman (2007, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

"Today's readers encounter plenty of critical essays (more brain than heart) and plenty of personal--very personal--essays (more heart than brain), but not many familiar essays (equal measures of both)." Anne Fadiman's own collection of familiar essays stands as a small, pleasing correction to that imbalance. Her choice of subjects includes some that most people have experienced, like ice cream and coffee, and some that are more idiosyncratic, such as her childhood passions for butterfly collecting and Arctic explorers. She also tempts us into contemplation of Samuel Coleridge and Charles Lamb, both their own writing and good books about them. The charm of Fadiman's voice makes her considerable erudition go down very easily.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Long Time Leaving

Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South
Roy Blount, Jr. (2006, Alfred A. Knopf)

"Eating is like reading and writing. A book ought to be something that a person can read the way a porson is meant to eat chicken: something with plenty of unabashed and also intimate flavor, ruddy and deep-dyed flavor, flavor hard to sepatate from the structure, flavor that is never really exhaustaible." Well, here I was looking for words that would characterize Roy Blount's writing--and he'd gone and written them for me. I hope you know Roy Blount already, an expatriate Southerner now living in Western Massachusetts.
"...I have sought to turn my regional ambivalence into a philosophical position (or dance). Trying to get Aunt Dixie and Uncle Sam on speaking terms." I can't think of anybody more qualified, or more fun to read while he's doing it. Blount also weighs in on politics, books, music and movies, as well as food, all with plenty of unabashed and also intimate flavor. Yum.

June 2007 by email

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading

Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books
Maureen Corrigan (2005, Vintage)

I've missed her radio work, but Maureen Corrigan is the book reviewer for NPR's Fresh Air; she's also a professor of Literature at Georgetown University. She gives us here a neat weaving together of memoir and book-talk, describing how she got to be someone who reads for a living. Corrigan earned a doctorate from Penn, a high achievement but in some ways a dreadful experience. Her reviewing work, and these essays, apply critical insights to some books that fall outside the academy's interest, in a way that I found useful.
Her first useful point is to name the genre of the female extreme-adventure story. The male version is typified by tales of Everest and Antactica, or hazardous weather at sea; Corrigan draws a thread from the Brontes to Anna Quindlen of books in which women persevere in the labor and patience of caregiving. "Blinding blizzard and numbing frostbite, such as Jon Krakauer describes, last for a few hours, maybe days, and then, one way or another, the nightmare is over. In contrast, the torments particular to women's extreme-adventure tales continue year after year." That description is apt to Corrigan's graduate school trek, and to her later attempts to start a family with her husband (and, although the little girl they brought home from China is still small, to parenthood itself, I should think.)
Another thing Corrigan says that I had not thought about before is that she had to look outside the walls of Literature for books that talk about daily work in a tangible way. But she did find it: "I was immediately sold on hard-boiled detective fiction because of its focus on smart characters who spent the bulk of their days plugging away at work that gave them identity and purpose." She also found in Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane other versions of the social criticism of the 19th-century moralists she was studying for her dissertation. In their successors, she finds descriptions of life in the United States richer in detail and social perception than is common in other kinds of novels. The murder plots, in many cases, could be regarded as window-dressing.
Corrigan gives close re-reading to her Catholic girlhood in Queens by looking again at Marie Killilea's books about her disabled daughter, Karen. The books were assigned by parochial schools as examples of selfless, devoted Catholic family life, but Mrs. Killilea's voice contains a streak of determination that amounts to contentiousness: however much Karen's cerebral palsy is a gift from God, to be accepted without whining, it's also something to be struggled with. These books are another fine example of the female extreme-adventure story, where perseverance is the relevant form of toughness.
I'm always attracted to books about books, without necessarily wanting to go where the author wants to send me. In combining memoir with criticism, Corrigan has struck a very nice balance; even if I am not moved to follow her suggested choices exactly, I've been given new tools with which to view my own.

Any Good Books
for June 08

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Look Me in the Eye

Look Me in the Eye: my life with Asperger’s
John Elder Robison (2007, Three Rivers Press)

“Checkered” doesn’t begin to describe the career of John Elder Robison, the author of this distinctive memoir. His life has covered a wide span, from high school dropout to successful businessman. For all its variety, though, what’s really remarkable about the career, and this memoir, is that Robison has Asperger’s syndrome.
Though he wasn’t diagnosed till he was forty, Robison always understood that he was different from other people. The adults around him, insisting on eye contact that he could not manage, convinced him that he was headed for a bad end: “Would I grow up to be a killer? I had read that they were shifty and didn’t look people in the eyes.”
It helped that he was smart. At the age of nine, he had a breakthrough. He taught himself to respond to what other kids said, rather than saying whatever was in his head at the time. Although social conversation would never come easily to him, he began reply in a way that would not confuse and annoy his fellows.
Finding machines better company than people, Robison gravitated to electronics. He fooled around with electric guitars and amplifiers, as well as the audiovisual equipment at school. This led to a series of gigs repairing and upgrading amps for Pink Floyd, and designing the ‘exploding’ guitars used by KISS. The work was a good fit for Robison’s special skills, but it provided a distressingly irregular paycheck, so he moved on to a job designing electronic games for Mattel.
Aspergians are poorly suited to some aspects of corporate life. Insofar as ‘tact’ is a another word for ‘skill at lying’, Robison doesn’t have any. As he was promoted from good engineer to bad manager, his engineering skills actually became a handicap. To hear ‘that’s a bad design, and it won’t work,’ the way an Aspergian engineer would say it, must have been highly disturbing to managers who had not come up through the engineering ranks. After ten years of increasing frustration, Robison hopped off the corporate ladder and went back to another of his true loves, repairing and restoring fine cars. It was one of his clients who tipped him off to the possibility that he had Asperger's.
Parts of this story are so sad they make hard reading. Robison’s early family life was roiled by his father’s drinking and his mother’s mental illness. As a teenager, in family therapy, he named his parents ‘Slave’ and ‘Stupid’, and he called his little brother Chris, who grew up to be the writer Augusten Burroughs, ‘Varmint’.
At other times Robison is funny, just in the act of explaining himself. His dogs have been called things like ‘Dog’ and ‘Poodle’; of his brother naming a dog ‘Cow’, he says, “Sometimes I think he did it just to annoy me.” Probably! It just might be affectionate payback for the ‘Varmint’ years.
Robison has been married twice. He must be kind of odd to live with, but I liked his disquisition on the question “If three men marry into a family of sisters and each thinks he got the best sister, do two of them have to be wrong?” He’s perfectly serious, and the mate in question is not offended by it. As it happens, most people really don’t make their most important personal decisions by reason alone, so it’s quite interesting to meet someone who does.
Robison’s report from the inside of the Aspergian world offers particular enlightenment to those who have family members on the autism spectrum, but they aren’t the only ones who will find in interesting. For all of us, it’s a call to find compassion for those who seem different, without wishing away the difference.

by e-mail, April 1, 2009