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April 18, 2011

Mired in the fat books

Since I had a baby two years ago, my pile of books to-be-read has never been less than 50 books long. And the books that tend to have lingered have been long, non-fiction, or Great Expectations. This past week, I’ve made a point of picking up some of these (but not Great Expectations), so that’s what I’ve been doing. First, I read Irene Gammel’s book Looking for Anne of Green Gables, which I had trouble with, but ultimately enjoyed. I don’t have much truck with the idea of decoding fiction from clues in the author’s personal life. I mean, understanding an author’s background can provide a fictional work with new dimensions, but it’s not like the solution to a mathematical problem, and sometimes Gammel wrote like it was. (Sometimes she even knew how flimsy was the ground beneath her feet, so revelations would come with a caveat like, “Or maybe Maud never ate tofurkey, but it’s certainly something we can think about”). The best part of the book was the sense it provided of the literary world Anne of Green Gables was born into– what books and magazines had LM Montgomery been reading in the years before she wrote the novel? What with the proliferation of fictional orphans called Ann in the late nineteenth century? I also loved that Montgomery’s kitchen was also the Cavendish post office, and how handy that would have been for keeping private the arrival of rejection letters.

Next, I read Joan Didion’s After Henry, which hadn’t been lingering on my shelf but rather was too tall for the shelf, had been resting on top of the books, then had fallen behind them. So I’d forgotten I’d even had it, and picked it up without hesitation when I found it because it was her third collection of essays (after Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The White Album). It lacked the magic of the other two, perhaps because it was not nostalgic and I think nostalgia is what Didion writes best. But it’s smart, and its treatment of the 1988 Democratic and Republican conventions was incredibly timely as we are in the midst of our own federal election. The essay “Insider Baseball” said it all. I loved her criticism of Patty Hearst’s memoir. And the final piece “Sentimental Journeys” kept me up well into the night on Friday, wrapt by her brilliance and challenged by so many ideas that made me uncomfortable. Didion is such an extraordinary writer.

And I decided to follow that with a collection of her late husband’s work, Regards: The Collection Non-Fiction of John Gregory Dunne, which is American-sized, but I love it, and is exactly what you’d expect from somebody who was Dominick Dunne’s brother and Joan Didion’s spouse. I spent this afternoon enjoying his essays about baseball, which is saying something. Now onto a bunch of book reviews. And when I finish this book, I’m going to move onto one that is going to take me ages, but if I don’t get around to it now, I never will. The Collected Stories of John Cheever for the love of the short story, and for its Mad Men-ishness. I am looking forward. Bear with me.

3 thoughts on “Mired in the fat books”

  1. Jessica says:

    I smile each time I see that photograph of Didion and her family. There is just an element of perfection to it.

    1. Kerry says:

      Beth-Anne: I have no idea what happened to the shelf. Particularly when I am reading *all the time*!!

      Jessica: When I see any photo of Didion from the 1960s, I understand why she writes about the time as she does. (Though no doubt she was suffering from a migraine when this photo was taken, her maid was being surly, and she’d received dirty looks after once again going to the grocery store in a bikini– it wasn’t always golden.)

  2. Beth-Anne says:

    Thanks for this. Both of these were also on my “to read” shelf. How did that shelf get so neglected?

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