Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin, one of my favorite authors, has a witty view of life to simultaneously lift my spirits while connecting me to his cynical view.  Having related to Tepper in Tepper Isn’t Going Out and laughed through his Travels with Alice as well as innumerable articles in The New Yorker, I had avoided his love letter to his dead wife, Alice, until one of my book clubs picked “About Alice” for a discussion. Unknown-2  The shorter version appeared in The New Yorker, published in 2006 – Alice, Off the Page.

In an interview for the New York Times  By the Book Trillan cites “About Alice,” the book he wrote about his wife who died in 2001, waiting for a heart transplant, as his most personally meaningful.  He also listed books that have “broken through {his} resistance to the magical,” with, not surprisingly, another famous humorist’s book in the collection of his favorites (mine too) – Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader.

The New York Times offered a review of “About Alice” in 2007 – Scenes from a Marriage.

Peter Stevenson writes: 

“This book can be seen as a worthy companion piece to other powerful accounts of spousal grief published in the last decade: Joan Didion’s tale of John Gregory Dunne’s fatal heart attack, John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch’s decline from Alzheimer’s and Donald Hall’s narration of Jane Kenyon’s death from leukemia.”

Since Alice’s death on September 11, 2001, Trillin has continued to write books and articles.  The last one I laughed over was his candidate for the scariest word in the English language – upgrade.  I could relate – maybe you can too?

“As the upgrades increase in frequency, I can imagine a future when, with the latest upgrade, I can’t find anything at all…With the upgrade to my smartphone, the podcasts I used to listen to are lost somewhere in the ether around West Virginia.”

Related Review:

Tepper Isn’t Going Out

 

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A Brief Detour into Nonfiction

 

9780374156046_p0_v2_s192x300  Flâneuse

After wandering around New York City with Lillian Boxfish in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse seemed a natural follow-up.  In a series of essays, each targeting a city – Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Elkin introduces the concept of the Flâneuse  – a woman who is “determined, resourceful…keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”  Whether or not you are familiar with each city, her attention to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods connects you to the landscape. As she addresses famous women who have walked the cities – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others – a connection between creativity and the dangers of women’s striving for independence in a man’s world emerges.  I have not yet finished the book – had to take time out to take a walk.

9780062300546_p0_v6_s192x300   Hillbilly Elegy

I was determined not to read this book, but too many like-minded friends urged me to try  J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.   Although Vance’s conversational style makes the book easy to read, the misery detailing the violence, poverty and addiction in poor white communities makes it hard to digest.  So much has been written about the book, both as social commentary and political influence (see reviews in The New Yorker and  major newspapers), but basically the memoir is sad and depressing – despite the author’s rise from poverty to the Marines and finally Yale Law School – yet, raising awareness and asking questions.

61eioJoO+wL._AC_UL160_  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

The English translation of Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down offers a series of short essays followed by short messages based on his 140 character tweets about faith and mindfulness.  The book reminded me of a gift I received years ago when I was in the throes of career building – Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.  Open either book at any page to get a short fortune cookie message with advice. Sometimes it is amazingly appropriate.

 

Mary Astor’s Purple Diary – The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936

9781631490248_p0_v4_s192x300Whenever I watch old movies, I cannot resist looking up the background of the players, wondering what their lives were really like.  Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary was satisfyingly short and funny – with pictures – and  Woody Allen’s review in the New York Times piqued my interest.  Maybe he’ll turn the book into a movie?

Edward Sorel’s Mary Astor’s Purple Diary focuses on a long forgotten scandal involving the movie star well known to old movie fans for playing the deceiving foil to Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and the wise mother in Meet Me in Saint Louis and Little Women. At a time when movie moguls used the casting couch for plum roles but concealed their movie stars’ indiscretions to gain approval from the “legion of decency,” Mary Astor’s love life was front page news when her diary was discovered.  Her descriptions of her many lovers became fodder for a real-life courtroom drama that could have been right out of the movies.

Sorel is well known for his political caricatures and his “unauthorized portraits”  of the famous.  No modern president or president-elect has escaped his fervor to “attack hypocrisy in high places.”  His style is easily recognized on covers for The New Yorker.

Sorel punctuates this book with a few hilarious scenes of Mary Astor as she negotiates her scandal. unknown-3 In a sideways tale of Astor’s life, Sorel includes facts about her family and background, but in his imaginary interview with the dead actress, he manages to include a funny perspective on her lovers – names old movie fans will recognize, including John Barrymore and George S. Kauffman.  At times, Sorel’s irreverent style and his tangents into his own marriages reflect a Woody Allen style with wry observations and self-deprecating humor.

I cannot imagine why Mary Astor kept an incendiary diary about her lovers; somehow written secrets always find their way out. But thanks to Sorel, it made for fun reading – like flipping through that Entertainment Weekly or People magazine in the doctor’s office.

Related Article: Woody Allen Reviews a Graphic Tale of a Scandalous Starlet

She Made Me Laugh: My Friend Nora Ephron

9781476796147_p0_v2_s464x700    When Nora Ephron died, her story became legend; how she influenced lives emerged in articles and books, but none so intimate and revealing as Richard Cohen’s inside look at her life – She Made Me Laugh. Cohen offers his platonic love story with the famous writer – a long valentine detailing her quirks, her loyalty, her genius – but with  snarky asides Ephron can no longer challenge.

With a style purposely mimicking Dorothy Parker, her role model, Nora Ephron not only created an enviable collection of essays, plays, and movies but also reigned over her own round table, like Parker, as a social maven and hostess.    Cohen details the dinner parties with celebrities, embellished with perfunctory  discussion topics and after dinner games designed to entertain as well as intimidate – Diane Keaton famously refused to play and Cohen himself admits to cheating to win.

Although I knew most of her body of work through movies and her most recent books, her earlier essays were a surprise and the sheer volume amazed me.   Cohen covers her career, from reporting for The Wellesley College News to mail girl at Newsweek,  to columnist, essay writer, novelist, screenwriter, director, and playwright.  In one evaluation of her prolific work, Cohen offers his own scorching critique:  “For Nora, the story came first. . . . Telling it was her job, her duty. She rarely let sentiment get in the way. . . . It cost her some friendships. It’s not clear, though, if it ever cost her a night’s sleep.”

I remember seeing her last creative effort, the play Lucky Guy about tabloid journalist Mike McAlary, who won the Pulitzer Prize shortly before he died at 41.  In the play he says: “If you are a doctor or a lawyer, you take the case. If you’re a reporter, you write the story.  I didn’t think about being sick.”  When I saw the play, I was impressed by the trademark Ephron wit, but not by the story or the lead character as played by Tom Hanks.  Cohen notes it as Ephron’s determination to leave one last literary mark, using McAlary as a role model of dying: “{The play} was about  Nora Ephron the beloved writer, wit, public personality, film director…” – the reason so many wanted to see it after she died.  He cruelly adds “…it is doubtful {the play} will ever be seen again.”

Ephron’s long illness and seemingly sudden death came as a surprise to her readers.  Only a few knew of her struggle, but her death triggered an avalanche of grief and an amazing amount of writing – about her.  At first, Cohen could find little wrong with his old friend, but as he wrote about their long relationship as fellow writers who witnessed each other’s lives through marriages and divorces, he seems compelled to humanize her with inside gossip about her flaws.  Cohen,  like so many others he identifies in the book, credits Ephron with his own success through her personal and career support, but can’t help disingenuously remarking “You knew some things; she knew everything…if she turned cold, it was more than an emotional rebuff, it was a failure: You had flunked Nora.”

Although I read the book in one sitting, I had to stop now and then to check the references – watching you-tube moments of Mike Nichols and Elaine May and listening to Ephron’s 1996 commencement speech at Wellesley, her alma mater.  Cohen’s memory did not always survive the fact checking, and his disorganized approach backtracked and repeated, but always adding a gossipy note – not always flattering to his subject.

Ephors died at 71, which seems awfully young to me, and of the same AML my brother died of in his forties.  She had rallied with illness for over six years, with very few knowing about it, and in that time, “she wrote 100 blog posts, two plays, directed a movie.”  She is beloved by readers who enjoyed her wit, and may have a place as patron saint of writers, but her old friend, Richard Cohen, had the last word on her indiscreet and sometimes frenetic approach to life.

His book has all the notes of a long friendship, revealing more than most of us probably should know.  Save us from our friends, especially if they are writers.

Related Review:   I Remember Nothing

 

Happy Mother’s Day

Thinking back on books about mothers, my favorite was Ruth Reichl’s Not Becoming My Mother.  The title evokes a prayer most daughters silently breathe when younger, and then realize when older.

Here is an excerpt from my 2010 post:

“In her usual humorous style, Reichl begins with a hilarious tale of how “Mim” creating a last-minute snack for her Brownie troop that somehow did not poison the girls. Her mother was not the cook in the family.

She quickly segways into a serious analysis of her mother’s life. Understandably, she dared not attempt to write about her while her mother was alive; who would? A box of letters conveniently chronicling relationships, disappointments, and missed opportunities becomes the basis for getting to know her mother. Predictably, her mother is not the person she thought she knew. Like all mothers, she had a life before becoming a mother, and Reichl convincingly attacks the nuances of her mother’s ups and downs with compassion and a gratitude for lessons learned.

Reading this short book can’t help but make you wonder what you don’t know about your own mother, or, if you are a mother, what your children got wrong about you.”