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 Little Life

9780804172707_p0_v1_s192x300   The subject matter kept me away from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – who wants to dwell on self-mutilation and  child molestation? I started reading it one night and had just started to enjoy the camaraderie of the four principal characters when the first incident occurred.  Thankfully, I had no nightmares but the next day I could not wait to start reading again and did not stop until I finished.

New Yorker reviewer John Michaud called it “an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery.” You can read his review here for more details on the plot.

Curious about the author, I found several interviews and was surprised to learn Yanagihara has a day job as an editor for Condé Nast Traveler.  In an interview with Alexander Nazaryan of Newsweek,Yanagihara reveals the philosophy driving her writing:  “All life is small…Life will end in death and unhappiness, but we do it anyway.”  In an interview with the National Book Award committee (the book was a 2015 finalist), Yanagihara describes her focus in writing the book:

“So much of this book, especially what it suggests about friendship—its possibilities and its limitations—grew out of conversations with my own best friend…  the realization that what you’re doing may not resolve anything—but that lack of resolution doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing…

The book does focus on friendship but the graphic descriptions of sexual violence make it hard to read.  Added to the trauma is Yanagihara’s mental construct of life – no happy endings here.   In an online interview, she noted, ” I didn’t do any research; Jude came to me fully formed, and writing his sections were always the easiest…One of the things I wanted to do with this book is create a character who never gets better… that there is a level of trauma from which a person simply can’t recover.”

I’m hoping to forget most of the story, but a few redeeming phrases about friendship I will remember:

  • “And he understood that friendship was a series of exchange of affections of time, sometimes of money, always of information.”
  • “…the utter comfort…of having someone who had known him for so long and who could be relied upon to always take him as exactly who he was…”

Read the book, if you dare.

 

Laughing Out Loud – Imaginary Mitzvahs

After a day of smiling at strangers, trying to follow the Chinese wisdom of Michael Puett’s The Path, I came across Calvin Trillin’s essay for The New YorkerImaginary Mitzvahs – and my true self reverted to type.

When I travel, I often tear out essays I want to read again from The New Yorker, before recycling the magazine to a flight attendant.  Trillin is one of my favorite funny cynics, and his litany of good deeds gone undone restored my cranky equilibrium.  But I did have a good laugh.

In Imaginary Mitzvahs, Trillan reviews his attempts to be a good person. When he graciously moves to a middle seat on the plane between a woman holding two crying babies and “a man whose stomach hung over the armrest” to accommodate the two men who “hadn’t seen each other in years…{this} flight is the only time we have to catch up,” he notices one man falls asleep throughout the flight and the other reads.

When he obliges his newly gluten-free vegan cousin by foregoing the sumptuous meaty French meal he had anticipated, his taste buds suffered but he felt virtuous.

Finally, when a cat in a fiery building needs rescuing, he resists – despite his inclination to do good.

There is a limit, after all.

Have a laugh – Read the essay : Imaginary Mitzvahs

9780375758515_p0_v1_s192x300And if you have not read Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t Going Out – my favorite book, here is my review:  Tepper Isn’t Going Out

 

 

 

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

9781608198061_p0_v13_s260x420We all die eventually, right?  And, with a little luck – or not, depending on our state of health – we may live to a very old age.  But most of us would prefer to be in denial about death, old age, debilitating illness, and any talk about the inevitable future. Roz Chast, cartoonist for The New Yorker, addresses these uncomfortable issues with grace and humor in her graphic novel/memoir – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

If you have lived through the agonizing ritual of watching your elderly parents decline and die, Chast’s comments may offer some comfort when you realize you are not alone in your conflict of resentment vs caring.  Issues of her parents’ slow decline, their resistance to change and to any discussion about change, despite their increasing inability to manage ordinary tasks – are handled with poignant humor.  I laughed out loud at some of Chast’s punch lines, but also cringed a little at how close she had come to knowing how I had felt when dealing with my own 94 year old mother.  Could it be Chast has discovered some universal truth about aging daughters with elderly parents?

Whether or not you have experienced Chast’s story of watching her parents age well into their nineties and die, her story of human behavior and parent-child relationships has the notes of humor, nostalgia, guilt, and love easily relatable to anyone.  You may be crying at times – but mostly you will be laughing – maybe at yourself.  Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?  has that Dr. Seuss quality of delivering truth with a good dose of reality, as you smile through the drawings and words of wisdom.

When You Need a Good Laugh

If today is your birthday, you share it with one of my favorite authors – Calvin Trillin.

Known for his humorous views published in The New Yorker essays, Trillin has also written books with that same flavor…the one I most like is

Tepper Isn’t Going Out  – read my review –  here

I would often read one of  Trillin’s essay, and then follow up with the topic expanded in one of his books.  Trillin wrote about his wife in  “Alice, Off the Page,” in the March 27, 2006 issue of The New Yorker; in his short book,  About Alice, a tribute to his wife after her death, he retains his familiar wry take on life.

Trillin has a new book – Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin – an anthology of his best.  I have it on my wish list for Santa.

Happy Birthday!  Keep smiling.