Saturday, April 01, 2006

My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale--A Book Review

Here is the next entry in my ongoing series of book reviews.

I went to the Pekin Library in search of another book, Mediated, which I will review later on this trip, and wound up checking out three other books: The Good Life by Jay McInerney, Let Us Praise Famous Men by James Agee and James Atlas’s memoir, the subject of this review.

My Life In the Middle Ages is a series of essays about an upper middle class New York writer. The book was inspired by articles on his life that Atlas wrote for The New Yorker. I remember reading one, about his children’s private school. It was a good relic of a certain upper middle class New Yorker kind of a life, fascinating and privileged, but also insulated and thus lacking perspective. As New York is the center of the universe, though, it’s good to keep abreast, so I gave the book a try.

Each chapter has a theme which is helpfully indicated by its title: Money, The Body, God, Death, 25th Anniversary. In many ways, the author is the typical intellectual yuppie boomer who came of age in the sixties. I guess it’s hard not to seem self-absorbed when writing a memoir but Atlas’s self-absorption is a little annoying, tinged with self-pity as it is. He intellectually seems to recognize his privileged position but is somehow disappointed when he doesn’t measure up to some of his high octane New York peers and friends. This “poor me” attitude especially rankles, as I think about the book in Haiti. I know the author didn’t have the Third World in mind when he sat down to write, but a few compassionate thoughts about those who’ve had it worse than he has would have served his book and his life well.

My two favorite chapters were the first one Mom and Dad about his father’s illness and death and another entitled Failure. His father, a physican enchanted by poetry, especially that of Yeats, seems a charming character. But Atlas seems ashamed that his father is merely a physician and not more accomplished like his friends’ fathers. His father provided the line from the book that has stuck with me. Atlas’s father and mother followed a health regime, which included healthful, light eating, maintaining as he put it, “a thin edge of hunger.”

In “Failure” Atlas describes getting fired from a major magazine writing job. In this chapter, he explores the process of accepting one’s limits, which truly seems to be one of the development tasks of the middle years. Atlas stops writing fiction and devotes his time and energy to areas that better suit his talents, like writing biographies and non-fiction articles. This recognition of our limits is a good lesson for everyone past 40.

No comments: