Approaching Eye Level – 3/5 Stars
Narrative essays from an affluent public intellectual in New York City circa 1980s and 1990s. She’s getting older and considering what that means for her world, worldview, and world around her. This is an interesting collection of essays that do not have an express connective purpose aside from being written by the some person, collected in the same basic time period, and presented in short form. What becomes clear to me from reading this is that Vivian Gornick is very very interesting and has a unique perspective. She’s been around. She’s written a lot. And she’s put her time and work in all over the place.
But because there’s not a significant larger purpose to this collection (as opposed to the other books being reviewed in this review) this one doesn’t hang together. It was the first of hers I read, and ultimately I read three, but that lack of connection made it feel less significant. Even to that point, I found this because I was looking for a different book in this section of the library (specifically I was looking for Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which I read and reviewed and this one was right by it in the literary feminism section of the public library. And I was a little confused, because I really really hoped it wasn’t just a….well it’s written by a woman kind of thing. But no, there’s an essay about how important feminism is to her, and it was good, but it was 9 pages long, where every other essay in the collection was closer to 30. So even the library didn’t know what to do with this one ultimately.
The End of the Novel of Love – 4/5 Stars
This one has a much much much clearer purpose. And I read it right after reading the Annie Dillard book on literary fiction Living by Fiction. I described that book as a very 1980 book. And this book it more “timeless” in a way. Vivian Gornick is not an academic writer, but she’s clearly a gifted writer and a very good reader. The result then is a series of readerly essays…meaning essays written by a reader who loves being a reader, is good at it, and is sharing the narrative surrounding a series of books, as well as a sense of the books themselves. And so as opposed to academic essays these are sort of raison libre kinds of essays showing you why you should read books. As if you needed an excuse, but these are vital essays in their own right. Very few of us can be academic readers, and even those who are are not automatically more important, better, or correct in their readings. Like all of us, they are suggesting a certain reading based on their given critical lens, and like many of us, they are flawed both in their arguments and approaches. So Gornick’s kind of intellectual readerly essays are exciting. She will also give a list of books to check out (as Dillard does in hers) but the list is smaller here, but also more developed and deeper.
So who should you read? The quickest and easy answer is to go right to the heart of it and pick up Christina Stead. She rightly recommends The Man who Love Children. And she’s right, it’s great. If you know for a fact you will never ever ever read another Christina Stead novel, read that one. But don’t, if you’re open to keep digging. Save it. Read Letty Fox first, or The Little Hotel, or The House of All Nations or the Salzburg Tales first. Otherwise you’ll be chasing that dragon.