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Book Review

A life of many days newly enthralling

By Grace Talusan
August 25, 2010

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A decade ago Emily Fox Gordon made her debut with “Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy,’’ a memoir developed from an essay included in her fourth and latest book, “Book of Days: Personal Essays.’’

This new collection of her work over the intervening years is stunning, not only in the precision and beauty of the language, but also in the author’s willingness to revisit events in her life — even ones she’s already written about — and to change her mind about them. Though each essay stands alone, the book as a whole traces the path of a woman becoming a writer.

In “Book of Days’’ Gordon, known primarily as a memoirist, is publishing the book she always wanted to, proving her powers as an essayist. Each essay opens into another journey of thought and reflection. In the title piece, Gordon writes, “I am a passive woman. I am a gormless woman. My life has been characterized by an extreme and pervasive failure of agency. When I look back at my fifty-four years, I’m appalled at the proportion of my time I’ve passed lying on couches, smoking, dreaming, sometimes reading.’’

After many rejections of her short stories, Gordon began writing personal essays and was surprised by how quickly they were accepted for publication. A literary journal published her essay “Mockingbird Years,’’ an anthology distinguished it over all essays published that year, and then a New York editor called about the possibility of turning the piece into a book. Eventually, the book proposal sold at auction for a sum Gordon describes as “more than all my life earnings put together.’’

She was advised to turn the essay into a book-length memoir because “no mainstream publisher would be interested in a collection of essays by an unknown like me. Who did I think I was, Cynthia Ozick? My story might be salable; my random thoughts and ruminations were not.’’

She recounts how publishing her second memoir, “Are You Happy? A Childhood Remembered,’’ in 2006 affected her relationships with extended family as well as with herself. In “The Prodigal Daughter,’’ she writes, “The kind of writing I do requires that I cannibalize my own history and its dramatis personae, but also that I stay morally alert enough to register what I’ve done.’’

This collection shows a writer observant and attentive to her life, intelligent in her analysis and reflections, and compassionate to all the players in it. Because these essays were published over many years, we witness the writer’s relationship to the events in her life shift over time. Like life, the personal essay resists a redemptive narrative arc.

Gordon’s observations infuse the most serious of topics with levity. Her psychologist, Leslie Farber, is “extremely sedentary; his idea of exercise was to fumble energetically for his lighter when it fell between the cushions of his red leather chair.’’ The person who delivers her to a kitchen table abortion is “a little man in a green suede feathered cap, who beckoned me out of the terminal and into the back of a limousine.’’

“Book of Days’’ will convince you of what there is to love about personal essays: the discursiveness, the facets and layers of experience, and the pleasures in remembering life through the act of writing about it.

While the memoir has many asking it to dance, readers miss out by not, at least for a turn, whirling the wallflower of creative nonfiction around the floor. You might discover that “Book of Days’’ is the one you want to take home.

Grace Talusan teaches writing at Tufts University and can be reached at grace.talusan@gmail .com.

BOOK OF DAYS: Personal Essays By Emily Fox Gordon

Spiegel & Grau, 320 pp., $15