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New memoirs: Donald Hall and Glynnis MacNicol reflect on life passages

A delightful last book from the former U.S. Poet Laureate, and a promising debut.

Donald Hall, author of

Donald Hall, author of "A Carnival of Losses" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 2018) Photo Credit: Linda Kunhardt

"There is nothing wrong, I hope, in writing out of your own life," suggests the late Donald Hall midway through his final memoir. (The former U.S. Poet Laureate died in June at age 89.) This proposition is offered in the course of a piece on Richard Wilbur, one of a series of charming vignettes remembering other writers. "James Dickey was the best liar I ever knew." "Allen Tate always looked grumpy." "Robert Frost, of all people, complained to me that [Theodore] Roethke was too competitive."

The proposition that there is nothing wrong with writing about one's own life underlies "A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 216 pp., $25), which continues the musings begun in "Essays After Eighty" and 17 previous works of prose: more on the writing life; more on Hall's marriage to and early loss of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon; more on Eagle Pond Farm, the New Hampshire property where his family has lived since the Civil War; more on medical matters and mortality; more on the poet's famously immoderate beard.

"As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume and remember." The brief vignettes collected here recall Joan Didion's deconstructed reflections in "Blue Nights" — except Hall is much, much more cheerful.

If you are Donald Hall, there is nothing wrong with writing about your own life, even if there really is not much in the way of new subject matter. While some memoirs succeed on the basis of the stunning story they tell — the best recent example being Tara Westover's "Educated" — Hall's delightful persona on the page; his crystalline, rhythmically precise sentences; his dry wit and his humility about his own achievements guarantee that we will happily spend this final afternoon in his company.

The debut memoir from Canadian-born New Yorker Glynnis MacNicol, "No One Tells You This" (Simon & Schuster, 289 pp., $26) recounts the author's experience of turning 40, childless and unmarried, and finding that it is far from the nightmare situation others seem to believe. A book like this begins at a slight disadvantage, since milestones and decisions of this sort are not always as interesting to other people as they are to the person experiencing them. The author may take Hall's permission to write about her own life only if she can convince us that we care. She has to be able to tell a story and turn a phrase; she has to find something uncommon to offer in common situations.

"I had known early on that I did not want my mother's life. If anything, I actively unwanted it," she writes in a prologue. The idea of actively unwanting one's mother's life felt both totally familiar and freshly formulated, thus taking the first step in overcoming the problems of solipsism and been-there-done-that-ism a memoirist of ordinary life confronts. Later, while she is trying to control her rage at an immigration officer who is examining her pajama pants and her toothbrush: "When you are your own emergency contact, you learn how not to get into an emergency if at all possible."

At the same time that she's convincing you of her insight, she's beginning to win your heart, particularly in her descriptions of her mother's decline, her very conflicted feelings about sending her to a nursing home, and her experiences helping with her single sister's three very small children. Fortunately there aren't many stories about dating. We've heard the ones about the text-based relationship with an unnamed actor and the one-night stand with the Marlboro Man at the dude ranch. On the other hand, the Tinder date with an old liar who becomes obsessed with the idea that she has dated Jon Hamm is pretty funny.

You can't read this book without imagining that this confirmed spinster auntie will end up announcing either her engagement or her pregnancy on her book tour. Fortunately, MacNicol is not unaware of this. When someone asks with alarm if she's "ruling out marriage entirely," she wonders at the idea that anyone can rule out anything, or count on anything, except death.

Something will happen to Glynnis MacNicol, that's for sure — and then, as Donald Hall did so many times, she'll get another book out of it. Permission granted.

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