Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, by Elinor Lipman

I have always enjoyed Elinor Lipman's humorous novels, with their many insights into human nature. This collection of essays, most previously published in newspapers or magazines, reinforces many of my preconceptions about her based on her fiction--she is funny, caring, and a keen observer of the sweet and sour of human interactions.

Three of the essays brought me to tears (which was somewhat embarrassing when I was listening to the book while grocery shopping). One of these was the story Lipman's friend Bobby who became pregnant at age 30, didn't marry the baby's father, but managed to build a complicated and loving family that included not only baby Julia, her father, Bobby's eventual husband, their son Max, and the extended families of all three adults. The depiction of how these families--Jewish and Catholic--came together at Julia's bat mitzvah is really a look at humanity at its best. Similarly, "A Tip of the Hat to the Old Block" is a lovely description of the Irish neighborhood in which Lipman spent her early years; it was her recounting of the people from the old block who came to her parents' funerals, decades after her family moved out of the neighborhood, that caused my grocery store tears. Finally, her tribute to her late husband, "This One's for You," is lovely and sad.

Lipman's topics range widely--from having one of her books made into a movie, to sex education for her son, writing blurbs for other authors' books, her mother's aversion to condiments, and her favorite book (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). It's reassuring to me, since I tend to think of authors as somewhat elevated personages, to know that Lipman has watched soap operas and golf, tried Internet dating with not-so-great results, and held grudges. I also enjoyed her essays about writing, particularly the one about naming her characters.

I listened to the audio version of I Can't Complain, read by the author, whose voice was surprisingly youthful; I enjoyed her reading very much.

Favorite passage:
My sister and I do solemnly believe, no, we insist, that each of us was unquestionably her father's favorite child, the shiniest apple of his eye. The argument goes like this. "I was Daddy's favorite child." "No, I'm sorry, I was." . . Finally, we agree to disagree, recognizing what a sweet and lucky argument ours is.

Ashes are sadder than I ever could have imagined.

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