A well-pondered life

  • Article by: KATY READ , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2010 - 6:00 PM

ESSAYS Gordon's essays veer from the world of academia, to colonoscopies, to therapy.

Book of Days by Emily Fox Gordon

In the title piece of "Book of Days," her collection of personal essays, Emily Fox Gordon confesses regret over one of her previous books, a memoir.

It's not the sort of regret you might expect to trouble a memoirist. She didn't make up stuff (aside, she says, from "a few liberties here and there with details of decor and landscape"). It's not that family members objected to unflattering portraits (though, she reveals in a different essay, they did). Not that she wasn't well paid or reviewed (she was both).

No, what Gordon regrets is having written a memoir at all. She's sorry she succumbed to a publisher's pressure to force her experiences into a memoir's tidy mold, with its required narrative arc and eventual satisfying closure. This formula, Gordon writes, disconnected her from the reality of her life.

"I lost touch with my real past, and consequently lost access to the future. ... Like a character under a fairytale curse, I had no choice but to wait until a sense of the actual past returned to me -- until the season of my false triumph had passed and the weeds of authenticity had grown high enough to obscure the orderly garden of memoir."

Real life, she suggests, is messier than memoir -- more complex, more amorphous, more filled with internal contradictions. In other words, more like essays. Her essays, anyway.

Gordon's precise, carefully observed pieces draw insights from ordinary events and characters. In "Faculty Wives," Gordon, both a child and wife of academics, compares the arty, accomplished women she knew growing up with their "defensive and depressed" current counterparts, noticing how the wives' roles became marginalized as women joined academia themselves. An account of her husband's colonoscopy summons ruminations on mortality, aging and time. She mines her feelings of rejection by the popular girls in her youth for perceptions about women's friendships and social patterns.

Gordon doesn't grapple with dramatic life events; on the contrary, she insistently downplays whatever drama peeks through. She portrays three teenage years in a psychiatric hospital as comfortable but dull. Only in passing does she mention three traumas -- a seemingly halfhearted suicide attempt, a rape, a temporary split with her husband -- that another essayist might make the central focus. Fiercely unsentimental, she's not much interested in stirring emotional reactions.

Her goals are more cerebral. What intrigues Gordon are the subtler, more nuanced events of the mind, primarily her own. Not surprisingly, she suggests that her analytical skills were honed over years in therapy.

"The kind of writing I do now is associative and self-exploratory -- much like the process of therapy, except that the therapist is absent and I've given up all ambition to get well."

It's a typically self-deprecating statement. Based on these intelligent and rational essays, Gordon's mind seems quite healthy to me.

Katy Read, a Minneapolis freelance writer, has written for Salon, More, Brain, Child and other magazines.

  • BOOK OF DAYS

    By: Emily Fox Gordon.

    Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 300 pages, $15.

    Review: These sharply observed essays appeal to the intellect rather than the emotions as they examine ordinary events and characters in search of larger insights.

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