Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful

More than one, in fact.

Tad Friend's brilliant new memoir, Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of Wasp Splendor is now in bookstores. I've sent copies to scores of friends. Read an excerpt here, a bigger excerpt here and a great review, from the San Francisco Chronicle here. Here is Eve Pell's review. And here Melik Kalan's thoughtful piece in Forbes.  It recently been named one of the best books of 2009 by the Washington Post.

A WASP, I should explain for my non-American readers, is an acronym for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the folks who came over on the Mayflower, fought the Civil War, signed the the declaration of Independence. They like dogs and horses, books, hanging out in the Hamptons (before it became "that place"), listening to opera in the Berkshires, wearing those salmon-pink pants on Nantucket, walking about Harvard Yard, sailing on the Cape, and wearing boots from LL Bean. One of their ilk wrote The Preppy Handbook; many have been President of the United States.

Friend, who writes exquisitely, paints a beautiful picture of his family and his relatives, in their resplendent eccentricity. Like the English, Wasps have funny names, collect useful pieces of silver (pea spoon, anyone?) and houses in the country, are encouraged as children to maintain a "veneer of acquiescence" and good manners whatever the circumstances so that "if this condemned us each to be an island of seeming cheer in an archipelago of sorrow, so be it.” And slowly, but surely, generation by generation, the money starts to run out. The whole thing feels most familiar.

In my experience, American psychoanalysis is keen to bring together all the parts of the human psyche in order to extricate a single whole; its goal is to un-departmentalize to attain happiness. Friend bravely (and honestly) documents his shrinkage, one of the parts of the book I found the most surprising. In fact, his noble quest to find balance and unity in his life, becomes one of the most interesting threads in the book.

Balance and unity appears in the form of his wife, Amanda Hesser, former food editor of the NY Times.

The book spans the family history, including a good bit of inspiration from his mother Elizabeth Pierson Friend, wife of the President of Swarthmore, artist, poet and cook. I remember this beautiful poem of hers from the New Yorker (reprinted without permission but with gratitude):

Steam Reassures Him

My husband is watching me iron.
Steam reassures him. The hiss of starch
The probing slide around each button of his shirt
Speaks to him of Solway Street in Pittsburgh.
As for me, the wicker basket is a reproach.
There is last summer’s nightgown,
And several awkward tablecloths
Which refuse to lie flat.

My house specializes in these challenges.
Bags of mail I did not ask to receive
choke the floor of my linen closet.
A photograph of me, holding a baby on a beach.
But which beach and, for that matter, which baby?
A Japanese chest whose bottom drawer has irresponsibly locked itself,
And who can remember where I put the key?

That night, waiting for sleep, I whisper,
I did only trivial things today.
And he asks, Why aren’t you painting?

The book stemmed from a piece he wrote about her in the New Yorker (at least, in part).

If you want to read beautiful writing, get a copy of this book.  I've already sent it to at least six people.

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