BOOK OF DAYS: Personal Essays, by Emily Fox Gordon. Spiegel & Grau, 300 pp., $15 paper.
Emily Fox Gordon is funny and very, very smart, and this collection of her essays sparkles with both qualities. In a piece called "Faculty Wife," she cleverly categorizes the ladies at an academic party as "Male Women" or "Female Women," depending on whether they boldly socialize, drinks in hand, or demurely hang back in the kitchen, nursing babies and filling cookie sheets. She dissects the home decor and attire of a type of overinvolved, messy, artsy mom she calls a "Kanga" after the doting marsupial in "Winnie-the-Pooh." She analyzes the origins and prospects of the type of college student she pegs with the acronym "mrg" for "most responsible girl" - in charge of the costumes for the school play rather than its star, the secretary of the student government rather than its president, the tortoise who will outstrip all the hares.
Throughout the book, Gordon offers interesting insights into the condition of being female. For example: "Pregnancy had reassured me that I, who at times felt myself to be painfully odd and anomalous, perhaps internally malformed in some occult way, was actually quite healthy and even normal. . . . These days I watch myself age with an oddly similar satisfaction." What a good idea, I thought. And how interesting to find this observation in an essay titled "Kafka and Me," which combines sections about the writing of her master's thesis with sections on life as a new mother while she worked on it.
A similar technique is used in "Fantastic Voyage," taking the occasion of her husband's colonoscopy to digress into the history and dynamics of a long marriage, taking us so far from the hospital corridor she is pacing that we, like the author, are both jarred and excited when her husband awakes from anesthesia. Suddenly, "the pager was dancing in my hand, flashing red and green." Oh right, the colonoscopy!
Gordon is 62 now, and this book revives the essays that grew into her memoirs "Mockingbird Years" (2000) and "Are You Happy?" (2006). The originals, she argues, are truer than the chronological narratives they spawned. "The essayist transects the past, slicing through it first from one angle, then from another until - though it can never be captured - some fugitive truth has been definitively cornered." Gordon is an "essayist's essayist" - not only because she manages the form so adeptly, but because her ruminations on creative nonfiction give fans of the form something to talk about besides how many hours or days James Frey really spent in jail.
While I found bizarre the inclusion of an introduction by Phillip Lopate telling us how marvelous Gordon is - as if she had to be sold to us, having been unread and ignored for centuries - that's one of my only complaints about the book. "Book of Days" is full of stimulating ideas and anecdotes, things to think about or better, to discuss. It should keep book clubs busy for years.