Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman is the author, most recently, of At Large and At Small, a collection of essays on ice cream, butterflies, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among other topics. She is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale.

Last week I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
During the school year I spend most of my reading time immersed in the words of undergraduate writers. Some of those words are very good. However, I can't deny that I enjoyed the luxury, while en route from place to place on a recent book tour, of reading actual books — copyedited, proofread, published, bound, and in no need of grading.

Scanning the mostly bleak shelves in the Hartford-Springfield airport gift shop for something halfway decent, I was overjoyed to glimpse a copy of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. A diamond in the dustheap! I snarfed it up in a single transcontinental gulp. I then stayed awake till four a.m. in the Heathman Hotel in Portland attempting to reunite the two central characters, whose wedding night had ended in catastrophe. What if Edward told Florence, “I'm sorry I called you a bitch”? What if Florence told Edward, “I'm sorry I called you a sexual failure”? What if they then embraced on the strand, packed their bags together, went home to Oxford, and found a sympathetic marriage counselor?

Unfortunately, Edward and Florence refused to patch things up. McEwan wouldn't let them. Hovering over the bed in Room 512 as dawn approached, his spectral form informed me, politely but firmly, “You Americans always want things to end happily. But don't you get it? This is a tragedy.”


I read Merle's Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, by Ted Kerasote, on both legs of a train trip between Springfield and New York City. It's a flat-out wonderful memoir about a stray dog, part Lab and part hound, who attached himself to a kayaker at a campground on the San Juan River in Utah; went home with him to Kelly, Wyoming; and eventually, by virtue of the social and political skills he displayed on his daily rounds of a town in which dogs are permitted to run free, became known as the Mayor of Kelly.

The mayor was a superlative dog — beautiful, sweet-tempered, and smart. Ted makes no bones about the fact that his bond with Merle was the most important and successful relationship of his life. One reason it worked so well was that Merle could come and go as he liked through a door in Ted's cabin rather than being tethered, leashed, crated, or fenced.

There's a lot about Ted and Merle in this book, but there's also a lot about dog behavior and cognition and genetics that helped me understand why Merle was the way he was. Ted Kerasote is a friend of my brother's, and I've met Merle — a celebrity encounter from which I plan to extract maximum mileage as readers discover this excellent book and the mayor's star rises.

Merle's Door doesn't end any more happily than On Chesil Beach. I read about Merle's protracted death between New Haven and Springfield, sitting next to a young man who gave me alarmed glances whenever I wiped my eyes or blew my nose. This time I didn't try to change the plot. I knew Merle had to die. But the book wasn't a tragedy. It didn't make me despair; it made me long to get home to my dog.
Read more about Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small at the Farrar, Straus and Giroux website. For more about her earlier work, see this brief biographical essay.

--Marshal Zeringue