Saturday, January 5, 2013

This and That -- Life-Writing and Fiction . . .

A potpourri as I try to tidy up the bookshelves at the change of year:

Reading Gary Snyder's essay collection, The Practice of the Wild, I kept recalling Cheryl Strayed's Wild, and there was something more going on than the echo of title or the overlapping geographies. Despite the very different genres -- Snyder's essays are satisfyingly stand-alone, discrete developments of ideas about the relationship between the wild and wilderness, albeit connected through this overarching theme; Strayed's memoir, while looping back and forth chronologically, is made insistently linear, its wildness ordered by the route she's tracing from California to Oregon -- despite the different genres, I found much resonance between the two. Primarily, the way the wild found in wilderness helps us connect with the wild in our spirit -- and somehow leads us to order -- an order that is not oppositional to wildness, as we usually construct that relationship. Snyder's intellectual and spiritual practices and their reflection in his writing have been developed over many decades and offer direction and wisdom that are still only nascent in Strayed's memoir, but they both inspire in their self-awareness, their ability to dig deep, and their willingness not to be sure, to question, to try.

Anne Zimmerman's An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Year's of M.F.K. Fisher is a satisfying biography of the food writer who led an unconventional and inspiring life, much of it as an expat in France. Her experiences there as a newlywed wildly enthusiastic about the possibilities of European life, particularly its rich gustatory offerings, are described convincingly by Zimmerman, although I occasionally wished for more direct excerpts from Fisher's correspondence. Fisher's gradual estrangement from her husband, and her subsequent love affair, then marriage to her life's true love and, eventually, the sadness of his illness and death, provide a dramatic story-line. So do her interactions with her family and her bravery in single motherhood after her husband's suicide. And, of course, the development of her writing abilities and the effect her writing had on America's culinary history.

Absolutely deserving of a separate post, but sadly, not likely to get one given my record recently, is one of my favourite books this year, Diana Athill's memoir, Instead of a Letter ( neat bookend to her Instead of a Book which I read earlier this year). I've underlined so many passages in this memoir, really fascinated by seeing a woman in her early 40s whom I've first come to know as one in her 80s -- a most unusual experience.  Athill's common sense, wisdom, and wit, I'm not surprised to see, were already evident by this stage, although she's often so self-deprecating I'm not sure she recognized these stellar qualities in herself. The book is particularly worth reading for a look at upper-class life in England at a time when that life was changing forever.  While rendering beautifully the pleasures of her childhood on the family's estate, Athill is anything but sentimental about the passing of the class system that allowed them.  She asks, "How guilty do I feel at having come in on the tail end of such a life and having loved so passionately a place founded on privilege the earning of which had become remote?" and her thoughtful and extended answer to that question, alone, is worth reading. This is a book I will keep handy and return to.

Edeet Ravel's The Cat is exactly as sad as its slim plot suggests: A mother who wants to commit suicide after her son is killed in a car accident, is stopped in her tracks by realizing that he would expect her to look after the cat they adopted together. But there is, eventually, movement forward, although the mother, Elise, resists it. Even, finally, there is redemption, although it's not unqualified. To say more would be to spoil the novel for others, and I wouldn't do that! Not my favourite by this author, but I found it credible and engaging -- she always tracks emotional terrain convincingly. (I've posted about her other novels here and here and here).

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