Review: At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman; or, A Review Post that Took a Turn for the Introspective

Verdict: An excellent and eclectic collection of essays.

I liked-not-loved the first Anne Fadiman collection I read, her book Ex Libris, which contained essays only about books. I think the problem may have been the similarity in subject matter — when everything’s books, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m in an argument with Anne Fadiman about one thing or another. The essays in At Large and at Small cover a much wider range of topics, from ice cream to Arctic explorers to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the constant throughout is Anne Fadiman’s enthusiastic interest in and affection for each of these subjects.

Her voice as an essayist is enthusiastic and subjective and intelligent and wry (all qualities I like in an essayist). She moves easily from her own childhood to the Darkest Polar North, as comfortable poking fun at herself as at arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, whose abandonment of his family troubles her about as much as his abandonment of his men on one arctic mission. (It’s not clear whether he intended to come back for them; Fadiman believes that he did, but who knows?)

Some of the essays — like the ice cream one and the butterfly collecting — were less aligned with my interests, but Anne Fadiman’s writing puts it over. She’s so interested in things, and if there is one thing I can consistently say about my opinions on people, it’s that I like people who like liking things. (Yes, I used the verb “like” three times in one clause. Deal with it.) Even when she’s writing an essay that’s critical of her subject, like “Procrustes and the Culture Wars,” she’s clearly delighted with her metaphor (not in an obnoxious, self-aggrandizing way! in an endearing way!). And the writing is just fun to read:

I do not suggest that the attractions of a single set of marching orders are easy to resist. It is far more work to start from scratch every time you open a book than to let someone else make up your mind before you read the first word.

This, y’all. This right here. I admit that I have let myself fall victim to this with particular authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne, for instance, hated women writers. Good. Me and Nathaniel Hawthorne have no further business to transact. He will not like that I exist, and I will not read any of his books or stories. That frees me up to read other nineteen-century writers. I like this kind of exclusion because it makes my life simpler, and I have made up my mind about all of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s books without the bother of reading them (except The Scarlet Letter and some of his short stories, which I did not care for).

Anne Fadiman argues (persuasively, but I stick to my guns because SHUT UP NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE) that this is maybe a lousy idea:

But if you believe, as I do, that great literature can be written by bad people, then your library can remain intact, no matter how much respect you lose for the authors as individuals.

It’s hard for me though! Respect and love are intertwined for me in this really instinctive way, and I’ve never figured out how to separate them. It is hard for me to bother about people I don’t admire or at least respect. I have a hard time being interested in people who were not sufficiently bothered about being good to their loved ones (like Charles Dickens or Anne Sexton), for instance — it’s not that I would never read them, but it’s that I sort of veer away from them. Even Milton I did not feel the same way about after learning how he treated his daughters. I still like Paradise Lost a lot, but it’s impossible for me to be unreservedly enthusiastic about it, the way I was when I read it for the first time in college. You know?

(To take it to a sports place: Watching Drew Brees play football (or like, Jimmy Graham or Adrian Peterson) fills my heart with unabated happiness. He is a good person and good at his job. When he throws a touchdown pass, there is nothing in me but joy. If I discovered that he or one of those other guys had beaten his girlfriend or wife, I would stop enjoying watching them succeed. I am not in control of this. It’s just what happens, willy-nilly. When I discover that someone is an actively good person, I enjoy watching them play football more.)

I guess the exception is funny people? If people are funny? Funny, or admirable. One of those two things. Ideally both, like Stephen Colbert or Amy Poehler or W. Kamau Bell. But funniness goes a long way. I love Oscar Wilde with a fierce and unrelenting love, and he is not really the dude you admire.

Fadiman also takes up a question that I’ve discussed in this space before, which is how to deal with books whose authors appear not to want you. I feel this way about Ernest Hemingway, for example — that he not only wasn’t writing for me but that he doesn’t acknowledge the legitimacy of someone like me. And there are authors like this throughout the Western canon. (More on this later! I am reading The Madwoman in the Attic and I have a lot of thoughts.) Anne Fadiman says:

What should you do when a work’s language excludes you? If the very words leave you on the sidelines — because, for instance, they are addressed to men and you are a woman — should you stick your tongue out and say, “Well if that’s the way you feel about it, I reject you too”?

And I still don’t know the answer. Should you do that? Should you say, reasonably enough, “There are plenty of fascinating and beautiful books in this world that don’t exclude the possibility of me as a reader, and the number of books I am able to read in my life is finite. I am not going to be bothered with Hemingway anymore”? Or should you persist because you want to be able to participate in the cultural conversation?

Well, this post turned into a discussion of authorial biography, which I did not exactly intend. But weigh in please! Does admiration factor into your reading enjoyment, and if so, how much? Do you, like me, rejoice to hear stories about the kindness of your beloved authors? Does it sadden your heart to hear about their failings? Do you wish Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen had not trash-talked each other because it forces you to take sides in your mind? (I love Charlotte Bronte better but find her criticism of Jane Austen unfair.) Are you able to completely separate an author’s biography from his or her writing?

Art people are so weird.

I read this book The Art Prophets, by Richard Polsky, which is a collection of art criticism essays that talk about dealers who discovered and promoted specific genres of art that weren’t necessarily appreciated straightaway. Like Ivan Karp with pop art, or Stan Lee in comics, Virginia Dwan with earthworks, etc. I read it during jury duty. I had a system. I’d read a couple of chapters of Ada, or Ardor, a couple of essays from The Art Prophets, and then I’d read a trashy novel (you don’t need to know details on the last part. Focus on how I am reading Nabokov).

There are actually a lot of things to say about The Art Prophets, but I’m not going to tell you any of them because this is a thing that happens in it:

In 1984, when I visited the Lightning Field, Dia would only allow two people out there at at ime (the number has since increased to six). You also had to commit to spend twenty-four hours on the property. Accommodations in a restored rancher’s cabin, adjacent to the work, are comfortable but spartan…

The temptation to photograph the work is overwhelming. Somehow, I was able to resist; it all comes down to honoring the artist’s pact with the viewer. What I did find irresistible was spending the warmest part of the afternoon interacting with the sculpture in the nude (disclosure: I wore high-top tennis shoes out of a healthy respect for the area’s diamondback rattlers). Since the Lightning Field was a work of art stripped down to its bare essence, it felt appropriate to do so myself.

(emphasis mine)

Did that feel appropriate? Are you sure? I TAKE A DIFFERENT VIEW.

Also, you know what my favorite part of this is? The word “interacting”. What does that mean, Richard Polsky? In God’s name what does that mean?

Bad Motherhood for Amateurs, Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon

Before writing about people writing about parenting, can I say, happy anniversary to my own lovely parents? Happy anniversary, Mumsy & Daddy! Y’all are the best ever!

Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, who are married and writers, both wrote books of essays about parenting and family. I checked them out of the library together. Waldman’s book, Bad Mother, had eighteen chapters and an introduction, and Chabon’s, Manhood for Amateurs, had thirty-nine chapters. So I would basically read a chapter of Bad Mother and then two chapters of Manhood for Amateurs until I had finished them both. This was very pleasing except that sometimes I would forget whose book I was reading and be like, Good heavens, Ayelet Waldman slept with a thirty-five-year-old woman when she was fifteen?

Can I recommend that you all read both of these books in the same manner that I did? I got such a crush on Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, even though I didn’t like the one Michael Chabon book I read before this one. It was touching to read their writing about each other and their kids, because it’s plain that they adore the kids and admire each other tremendously. And I am a sucker for couples who admire each other. Like the Brownings. Except the Brownings are still my favorite literary couple. Of course. A time will never come when this is not the case.

When I cried: Waldman’s essays “Rocketship” about having an abortion, and “The Audacity of Hope” about that guy who does that stupid dance all over the world and how parents try to portray the world as kind to their children. (Y’all, I know it’s dorky, but that video makes me tear up.) And also Chabon’s “The Binding of Isaac” about the Obama girls on election night, and “The Hand on My Shoulder” about his ex-father-in-law, and “The Story of Our Story” about telling stories to his brother.

One thing I loved about both books is the awareness of each of the writers of the mythologizing function of family. Chabon writes about this particularly in his essay “The Amateur Family.” It’s about Doctor Who. I’d really rather quote the part where Chabon says something about “the supreme and steady pleasure of watching the dazzling Scottish actor David Tennant go about the business of being the tenth man to embody the time-and-space traveling Doctor”, but instead of doing that, I’ll quote this:

Maybe all families are a kind of fandom, an endlessly elaborated, endlessly disputed, endlessly reconfigured set of commentaries, extrapolations, and variations generated by passionate amateurs on the primal text of the parents’ love for each other. Sometimes the original program is canceled by death or separation; sometimes, as with Doctor Who, it endures and flourishes for decades. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs–nerds, geeks, and fanboys–of us all.

As a girl who can easily spend hours arguing with her sisters about the proportional amounts of blame to be assigned each sister the time Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron, or discussing how Doctory Matt Smith is compared to David Tennant, I can vouch for the similarity of the two arguments. We are all very fond of Matt Smith. We just like David Tennant, in varying degrees, better. And it wasn’t at all my fault that Social Sister hit me on the head with a tire iron. If Anna hadn’t broken one of her porcelain horses on a previous occasion, she would not have thought I was serious when I was threatening to break the other one and taken preemptive action. Not my fault at all.

Waldman says this, which I also know is true because I swear I have had nearly this exact experience.

And I think, “A person does fall onto the ground screaming when she experiences a hideous, shocking pain. Remember that.” This, alas, is part of what it means to be a writer, someone whose job it is to observe closely enough to convincingly turn what she sees and feels into words. A writer stands at a distance and watches her heart break.

I wrote down so many quotations from these books! Ayelet Waldman on division of labor:

But as marriages progress, you surrender areas of your own competence, often without even knowing it. You do this in part because it’s more efficient for each individual to have his or her own area of expertise, but also as a kind of optimistic gesture. By surrendering certain skills, you are affirming your belief that the other person will remain there to care for you in that way….One of the tragedies of a lost love is the collapse of this system, and the confrontation of the ways we’ve allowed ourselves to become dependent.

Michael Chabon on escaping from life:

When the vision fades and the colored smoke disperses, we are left alone and marooned again in our skulls with nothing but our longing for connection. That longing drives writers and readers to seek the high, small window leading out, to lower the makeshift ropes of knotted bedsheet that stories and literature afford, and make a break for it. When that window can’t be found, or will no longer serve, or when it inevitably turns out to be only paint on the unchanging, impenetrable backdrop of our heads, small wonder if the longing seeks another, surer form of egress.

Maybe I would like Michael Chabon’s books after all. I mean I know all about his family now, and how to pronounce his last name, and the covers of his books are pretty. But I am still gun-shy from reading Kavalier and Clay on the plane a few years ago and finding it disappointing, so I think I’m just going to read Maps and Legends for now.

Reviews of Bad Mother:

Necromancy Never Pays
Rhapsody in Books
A Good Stopping Point
The Book Lady’s Blog (and guest review)
Devourer of Books
In Search of Giants

And reviews of Manhood for Amateurs:

Shelf Love
Stella Matutina
Amy Reads
Necromancy Never Pays
Fizzy Thoughts
The Bluestocking Society
Stuff as Dreams Are Made On with The Written World
The Captive Reader
Book Addiction
The Book Lady’s Blog
Book Dads
Killin’ Time Reading

Let me know if I missed yours!

Reviews: Watching the English and Changing My Mind

Watching the English, Kate Fox

I have a confession to make, y’all.  I am a sucker for pop psychology, and also pop sociology and yes, pop anthropology.  It’s all, you know, it’s all readable, and there are interview excerpts, and people talk about what they think and why they do the things they do.  How could anyone not love that?  I love that so much!

I know that Kate Fox’s Watching the English is observational and subjective and thus Not Proper Science, and maybe it was a tiny smidge repetitive…and yet I do not care.  Because it got me all nostalgic.  Oh, for so many reasons.  With the queues; and the thing about how Americans don’t understand irony and Britain knows we don’t because of that Alanis Morrissette song; and the tea v. dinner debate (which raged in my flat my whole first term at Essex University).  I love living in Louisiana – y’all know I love my home state – but oh how I miss England sometimes.  Kate Fox writes with wry humor (humour) about all sorts of British customs, admitting freely their absurdity and her own adherence to them.  It was a fun read.  Excellent for camping, and of course it reminded me of all the things I liked so much about England.

(When I went to the WH Smith (or Waterstones?) in Croydon to buy the sixth Harry Potter book at midnight, one of the British girls I was with said, perfectly seriously, “Oh goody!  A queue!” as I was preparing to launch into a moan about the length of the queue.  She was very cheerful all the time we were waiting, but was sobered when she had the book in her hands.)

Other reviews:

Stuck in a Book

Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith

As much as I love pop anthropology books, that is how much I do not love books of essays.  Which is to say, when I am reminded of them, I express strong feelings (see above), yet I spend most of my time not thinking about them at all.  Eva wrote about Changing My Mind in glowing terms; ordinarily when she busts out the glowing terms to describe a book, I go to my library’s website to investigate the availability of that book; but I don’t like books of essays.

Except when I went to the library before camping, to get a bunch of books to read on our camping trip, I suffered a series of disappointments.  The library claimed it had The Group, which I really wanted, and Cold Comfort Farm, which I really wanted, and you know what?  IT HAD NEITHER.  I was wandering out of the children’s section, where I had been searching for a Mary Stolz book the library also did not have.  My life was so depressing.  I’d come to get one duty-read (Slaughterhouse Five) and three pleasure reads, and y’all, walking out of the library with one book is just, you know, it’s just such a defeat.  And then, right there on the new books shelf, was Changing My Mind, and I didn’t want to leave with only Slaughterhouse Five, so okay, I got Changing My Mind.

And yeah, Eva was right.

The essays in this book vary in topic from Greta Garbo to Zora Neale Hurston to Smith’s visit to Liberia.  I learned many things, such as that Firestone is very, very wicked in Liberia, and that Nabokov was quite as arrogant as I have always vaguely suspected him to be.  Zadie Smith writes so beautifully in these essays that I read all of them, even the ones on topics that should have (and have, in the past) bored me stiff, like Kafka and Greta Garbo.  I particularly enjoyed her essay about her father’s participation in D-Day, “Accidental Hero” – it’s not just a glimpse into the experience of war, but a reflection on her relationship with her father, as a daughter and as a writer.  These are occasional essays and personal too.  I guess now I should go try one of Zadie Smith’s full books.

This is my first read for the Women Unbound Challenge!  I loved the way each of the essays spoke to Zadie Smith’s personal life and views, which I suppose is what made all of them enjoyable for me.  She writes about relationships – between books and between people.  Next up for this challenge is The Group, which I have now managed to acquire, and to which I am very much looking forward.

What are your feelings on essays?  Like them, don’t like them?  Like them singly but not a bunch all in a row?  Want to recommend some?

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair
Book Addiction
Vishy’s Blog

Tell me if I missed yours, on either of these books!

Three mini-reviews

Stolen Voices: Young People’s War Diaries, from World War I to Iraq, Zlata Filipovic and Melanie Challenger

We had to read Zlata’s Diary in ninth grade, and I remember thinking, Sheesh, if I were Zlata as a grown-up, I would really wish these diaries weren’t out there.  They are just like the diaries I kept at that age, lots of Oh why is this happening to me, and How can these trivial things make me happy when there is so much darkness in my life? – the difference being, of course, that she actually had bad stuff happening to me; and the other difference being that I sensibly chucked my old diaries in the trash when I reached the age of reason.

However, I am glad that not everyone did that, and I really enjoyed reading these diaries from all different wars, esp. WWII, my favorite war to read about because Hitler was a Very Evil Villain, and hooray for defeating him though down with bad behavior of a retaliatory nature at Dresden.  (Ours not his.)  I like reading other people’s letters and diaries.  If I were not on a specific and necessary book-buying embargo, I would be buying L.M. Montgomery’s journals right this minute.

Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag

I like Susan Sontag.  I really do.  One of these days I am going to read one of her proper books, rather than just essays – thoughher essays are excellent.  Regarding the Pain of Others discusses the idea of war photography – whether the iconic war images we all remember were real or posed, and whether it matters; whether we lose sympathy as we become inured to seeing gruesome images and videos on the TV every night; the role of photography in memory of horrific events; how these images can make people into voyeurs as well as witnesses; and all sorts of things.  She raises more questions than she answers, writing as she always does with lucidity and compassion.

Children Who See Too Much: Lessons from the Child Witness to Violence Project, Betsy McAlister Groves

I do not like reading this sort of book.  I find it really upsetting.  However, I signed up for Jeane’s DogEar Reading Challenge – everyone does these but me!  I feel so left out of the challenges party! but not anymore! – and in order to make myself read this, I made Children Who See Too Much one of the books I was going to read, a nonfiction book on a topic I don’t usually read about (because it makes me really upset).  And it worked, voila!  I read it.

DogEar ReadingChallenge

It made me really upset.  I cry really easily, but seriously, I had to sit next to a box of tissues while I was reading this, because the stories Ms. Groves tells about children she worked with are so tragic (it’s banal but true!).  What gets me is how responsible many of the children seemed to feel for the violence they witnessed – as a great big control freak, this resonated with me.  I think it’s important for people to be aware of how children process what they see, and that children – like adults – need to talk about traumatic things that happen to them; and important for parents to realize how conflict between them, particularly violent conflict, can have a profound and lasting effect on their children.  So I am glad I read this book.

Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman

Ah, books about books.  I read this because I can’t get ahold of Nick Hornby’s much-touted books about books.  Anne Fadiman writes about all kinds of aspects of loving books: marrying libraries, loving your books, plagiarism – all kinds of things.  I liked some of these essays a lot – the one about marrying libraries made me wince because I could picture myself agonizing over how to organize and sort out my books with someone else’s.

I was interested to read an essay from the perspective of a woman who loves books and doesn’t mind destroying them.  (I wrote, destroying me, and didn’t notice until I was about to hit publish on this post.  That should tell you how I feel about it.)  I’m what she calls a courtly lover, and it has never kept me from enjoying the hell out of my books.  I don’t understand the carnal love that she and her family feel for books.  I just don’t.  Even after she explained it, and talked about all the things that courtly lovers are missing, I couldn’t understand how anyone could think this way.  I still own the copy of Jane Eyre that I read when I was eight years old.  Ditto Little Women, and Peter Pan (a little younger), and all of Edward Eager’s books except for Magic or Not, which has gotten lost over the years, to my serious distress.  Imagine if I had smooshed the pages all around or God, torn them out and thrown them away.

To me, books get better the longer you have them.  Whenever I pick up my copy of Little Women, I remember how excited I was to get it, and how pleased I was because it was huge, and I had to sit with it open on my lap because it was too heavy for me to hold up for any period of time.  I have my copy of Caroline B. Cooney’s Among Friends from when I was nine years old, and some girls at school were making my life a misery.  My mother had told me about Among Friends and how it was about a girl in a similar situation to mine, and I remember I was brushing my teeth, and she came into the bathroom and said, “What book do you want more than any other book in the world?” and I said, “Among Friends,” and there it was, she had bought it for me!

I don’t know.  I love that books have a history, and if you treat them like crap, they’ll never grow old enough to have that.  They’ll get all torn up and mussed, and eventually you’ll have to buy a new copy and start all over again.  What about you?  Are you careful of your books?  Do you get attached to specific copies?

Funnily enough, I couldn’t relate to her story about her favorite pen.  At least, not much.  I am a fan of pens, and I’m always looking for the exactly right pen, but I don’t tend to get fond of particular, individual pens.  I miss some pens that I’ve had before, but only because I haven’t been able to find the same pen to replace them once they got lost or ran out of ink.  I always write my stories on the computer, and I have since I was a little bitty girl – my thoughts just flow better that way.  But my books, now, I would be crushed if I lost any of my old books.

Other views:
Stainless Steel Droppings
an adventure in reading
Rose City Reader

Of Other Worlds, C.S. Lewis

You know how you complain about your family members sometimes, when you’re in a bad mood with them?  And you’re all, My father’s this, my sister’s that, when you’re talking to your friends?  And it’s okay for your friend to say things like “That does sound frustrating” or “She’s being unreasonable”, but if your friend ever says “Wow, your sister’s a bitch”, you get really really angry and tell your friend to mind her own damn business?

That’s my exact relationship with C.S. Lewis.  I can say bad things about him, but you had better not.  Or if you do, you had better start off by saying how much you love C.S. Lewis, so that it is clear to me that your relationship with him is similar to mine.  I can continue to like Neil Gaiman, but I am permanently angry with Philip Pullman.  Sorry, Philip Pullman.  This isn’t your fault.  You never had a chance.

Because at heart, and probably forever, I’m devoted to C.S. Lewis.  I encountered his books at an uncritical age (three), and I didn’t learn anything to his discredit until I was much older and it was far too late.  In the meantime I had discovered that I wanted to be a writer, and I had started writing dozens of stories that were, essentially, Narnia done over again.  So much too late to decide that actually I didn’t like C.S. Lewis after all.

Of Other Worlds was a collection of C.S. Lewis’s essays on, you know, other worlds, writing for children and all that, and when I read it, I wanted to travel back in time and give him a hug.  He defends children’s stories and fantasy/sci-fi stories very staunchly – bless him for that.  I just never get over how much I love C.S. Lewis’s style of writing.  I’m sure this is partly because it is the first style of writing I can remember, and it makes me feel safe and at home; but partly, the man just writes elegantly.  His sentences are often long, but they never ever seem convoluted, and he uses commas to excellent effect.  He’s like – he’s like Cicero with commas and semicolons.  Cicero with semicolons!  WHAT COULD EVER BE BAD ABOUT THAT?

Here are some things I am glad he said:

Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology, and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them.  This is all pure moonshine.  I couldn’t write that way at all.  Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion.  At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord…

The Lion began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood.  This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen.  Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: ‘Let’s try to make a story about it.’  At first I had very little idea how the story would go.  But then suddenly Aslan came bounding into it.  I think I had been having a good many dreams of lions about that time.  Apart from that, I don’t know where the Lion came from or why He came.  But once He was there He pulled the whole story together, and soon He pulled the six other Narnian stories in after Him.

Quite right too.  (I love Mr. Tumnus.)  Say what you will about C.S. Lewis, the man is not afraid of a semicolon.  I love semicolons.

I’ve heard of so many people who say feel cheated when they discover that there are parallels between these stories and Christianity, and I find the whole thing bizarre.  Authors write about issues that interest them, and C.S. Lewis was interested in Christianity, so – hey, big surprise! – Christian themes inform his books.  I can see not liking that, because maybe you aren’t interested in Christianity, at least Lewis’s version of it, but this betrayed feeling is weird to me.  The books have themes that inform the entire story, just like every good book ever.

To be honest, the whole business strikes me as rather akin to people who say that things like Angels in America are trying to “advance a gay agenda”.  They aren’t; they’re just written by people who hold a certain set of beliefs, and those beliefs come through in the play or book or whatever.  The Narnia books aren’t sneakily advancing a Christian agenda for propaganda purposes.  They’re written by a Christian person.

And, actually, I think it’s sweet how C.S. Lewis always seems to have such a crush on the Lord.  His religious views sometimes annoy the hell out of me, but he seems to have really, really, really liked God, and to have had a powerful sense of the immediacy of God, and to want to communicate that if he could.  So if you do not think it’s nice how much he loves God, I guess that could be annoying.  I always think it’s nice when people love things tremendously.