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I've been a huge fan of Elinor Lipman ever since The Inn on Lake Devine back in - oh, I don't remember exactly when it was but it was a very long time ago. All of her novels have been a genuine pleasure to read and the most recent, The View from Penthouse B, is an absolute joy.
Here, she gives us a collection of pieces written for various publications and divided into categories: Meet the Family, On Writing, Coupling Columns and Since Then. The pieces are a little short for my taste (I'm not a fan of the short story in general) and perhaps might have enjoyed this more as a joined-up autobiography. But this is my failing not Ms Lipman's.
In one of the last pieces, 'This Is For You', she tells us in loving and unsentimental fashion about the premature death of her husband from a rare brain disease. Tears welled up. In the final piece, 'A Fine Nomance' she talks about the parallels between her own difficulty in picking up the dating reins and the character of Gwen-Laura Schmidt in The View from Penthouse B. Elinor Lipman says that her 'default setting is cheerful'. It sounds a pretty good setting to me.
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I have read all of Lipman's novels and have loved them all. When I discovered she had a book of personal essays in the (publishing) works, I was thrilled. I'm in love with her writer's voice--insouciant, wise, discerning, beautifully humorous. And just as in her fiction, that voice is light, yet powerful in her essays about love (romantic and familial), writing (!), and widowhood.
As a narrator, you get a sense of who Lipman is; in these essays, you get more "facts" about her life--her late husband (who was always early), her mensch of a son, her family background, and her writing habits. They are harmonious with her fictional self--lovingly and wryly described. One of my favorite essays is her St. Patrick's Day Valentine to the Irish-Americans who shared (and dominated) her childhood neighborhood ("A Tip of the Hat to the Old Block")--Lipman makes the characters so vivid that I can see the blue-eyed Suzanne showing off her dotted Swiss dress, as well as the play of light in the room that Lipman doesn't describe. Thanks to the the written window Lipman provides, I am there, seeing and feeling.
I also adored the story of the bat-mitzvah girl with three sets of grandparents--like a number of the author's reflections, the essay reminds you of initial impressions and how they may or may not stay valid through time. Her writing about her late husband is exquisitely-wrought; it is never maudlin, and all the more poignant for that. There really was not one essay I didn't find of value, so I won't list every one of them here.
But even if you have never read Lipman's fiction, you should enjoy these essays if you are a writer (naming your characters and the use of food for characterization are just some of the tips you'll glean) or a thoughtful woman. There's a subtle feel-good energy to all of Lipman's work--it's not in the way of flashy fireworks, but substantive human charm and decency. Deliciously-concocted food for thought that I gulped down in one sitting--and can't complain at all about. No bitter aftertaste to be found.
I'm always a little leery about reading a book of essays like this for fear it will sound too disconnected or egotistical, but this lovely book was neither. It had themes (writing, life, motherhood, marriage) that flowed well and offered something for everyone.
If you're a fan of Ms. Lipman, this book is a special treat. I've always felt like she's this author you love to read and also wouldn't mind having over for dinner because she'd be gracious and funny and would make everyone feel as if there was a light shined on them. These essays bring out Lipman's personality, and even when she's writing about serious subjects and sadness, the tone is light, smart, and witty.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Greatly Looking Forward To The Next Time1 Mar. 2013
Elinor Lipman, a favorite author to many of us has given us a book of very funny and unique life stories. She dedicated the book to her son, Benjamin, who she says, is now used to this attention. There are 31 chapters, humorous, poignant and true to life. Elinor, after reading these personal stories, I feel she is my friend, writes stories That are so relatable. She is from my period of time, sometime between 1900 and 1950. I understand precisely when she talks about her neighborhood accepting her family, even though they were the only Jews in a conclave of Irish. That is how life was in New England, she from, Lowell, Mass. Everyone looked out for the other's kids, we were outdoors from dawn til dusk in the summer. We went everywhere, afraid of little. I found the first ten chapters the most relatable and funny. Her family, growing up with a father who thought of her as his favorite, or was it her sister? His love of Max Shulman, and Dobie Gillis. The friends, their families, her best friend's Bat Mitzvah, where her two dads, one mom, three sets of grandparents, two sets Jewish,and one Irish, all attended and had a fabulous time. Good Grudgekeeping, like most of us, Elinor remembers! Sex Ed, her son's introduction to the wonders of love, who told her after his dad went through the man/woman deal, that ' a man takes a seed out of his tush and a woman eats it'. The death of her mom and how she still thinks she should call her mom when anything intetesting happens.
The second eight chapters are about her writing. How she became a writer, what it means to her and what method she uses to name her characters. The third set of chapters are about love and coupling. She has some very funny stuff here. Anniversaries, separate beds and dating. The last bit of chapters are about life after her husband died. She is doing well, and seems to have taken up life again. Elinor is my kind of girl, intelligent, open to new events, talkative, full of life and vim, and quiet and introspectful when needed. Elinor would be a great friend, she is that kind of woman, we can relate. As she says in one of her chapters,she is sorry to have missed an event, but she is greatly looking forward to the next time.
HighlyRecommended. prisrob 02-28-13
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
No complaints about "I Can't Complain." Only kudos.1 Mar. 2013
This collection of essays and columns the novelist Elinor Lipman has written for newspapers and magazines is a gem...warm, sad, funny, delightful, insightful and deeply personal--kinda, sorta like finding a new best friend. Here's a small sampling of some personal faves:
In her "Meet the Family" columns I learned that chicken soup benefits from having a fistful of dried split peas thrown in... and that I'm not the only woman on earth who doesn't eat condiments. (Lipman's mother didn't either.)
The "On Writing" articles reveal how Lipman deals with blurb requests, picks names for her characters, uses food as a narrative helpmate and how her first novel "Then She Found Me," went to Hollywood and took 19 years to become a movie.
Her "Coupling Columns" take issue with the old bromide "Never go to bed angry," and the challenges of being married to an overzealous foodie and clean freak...and wonders if marriages not preceded by a proposal last longer than those that were. Or as Lipman puts it "Here's to the guys not on bended knee, not holding little velvet boxes. Here's to things more durable than diamonds."
The "Since Then" columns look at life after widowhood. She watches the Masters by herself for the first time. When asked about dating, she thinks "Maybe, if that day comes, I'd be okay with a high school romance" or, as she later puts it, "a fine nomance." Meanwhile, she reconfigures the novel she'd been working on from a third-person story about a young woman living with strangers into a story of two middle-aged sisters, with one of them, a widow, as narrator. Can't wait for the email from Amazon letting me know that that book,The View from Penthouse B has shipped.
I was interested in this book because I like the novels of Elinor Lipman. I read essays to get an unusual, perhaps quirky, point of view or to get to know more about a particular writer. Unfortunately, some of the pieces in this collection seemed to me about boring topics (or boringly handled?) in a boring life.
Ms. Lipman's soap opera viewing over the years was of little interest. Neither was her confession of grudge-keeping. Or her "quirk" with invitations: "I must explain why I'm turning down an invitation, lest the potential host guess the truth, that I simply don't want to go." (Wow! News flash! I wonder if anybody else does this?)
I usually find fascinating a peek at an author's writing routines. The essays in the section of this book, ON WRITING, like about blurbs and naming characters, had more ho-hum stuff.
A little more interesting was the author's writing about her parents and her husband and son. The description of the stages in her son's sex education is very amusing. But no new ground is explored about sustaining a marriage of decades.
Midway through the book I knew this could not be a 5 star collection for me. I've tried to pin point exactly why.
There is a flatness to the experience of reading these essays. Maybe it has to do with the kind of ordinary, routine-filled life the author seems to have lived. She says about herself that she doesn't like "too much attention." And she doesn't disagree when a friend says she is "not sentimental." Is this why the writing seems to lack any spark?
Perhaps it is because the essays are mostly rather short in length. The author was writing to order, to fill a limited space. Maybe therein lies the problem. There wasn't enough room for Ms. Lipman to explore, to develop and discover, to build as she says she does when she writes fiction. (I don't think it's accidental that the essay I liked best, the last in the book, was one of the longest.)
As the title of this collection proclaims, the author is not a complainer. Too bad she hasn't shown a bit more of the liveliness her fiction suggests she is capable of.