Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Katherine Lanpher’s Leap Days

I love memoirs. I love reading my friends’ books. I love meeting authors. When I met Katherine Lanpher at Lauren’s burlesque show/reading/fete for Girls Write Now, I wanted to befriend her, remembered listening to her on the radio with Al Franken, remembered reading about her fabulous West Village apartment in the Times (you can see it on her webpage, under “articles” [scroll down]) and begged her to send me a copy of her book.

Thanks to her publicist, she obliged.

I gobbled the book. I’ll admit that I hadn’t read it when it came out because our stories were too similar: she moved to the West Village in mid-life on February 29, 2004. (She was 46.) I moved to Jersey City in mid-life just six months earlier. (I was just shy of 37.) In those early days in New York, it was too hard to read about the seemingly footloose life of a single woman my age when I was slogging through the slush with a stroller on the wrong side of the Hudson.

But I’ve read it now and am so glad. It’s a lovely collection of essays, really, more than a memoir, about adventure and possibility and discovering that those things can continue on into one’s 40s, can continue even after one has “decided” that the time for adventure has passed.

That said, the weakest piece for me is the first. There, I think, she writes a very funny account of going through one of those trapeze camps where you overcome your fears by doing circus tricks. This seems like a gimmick to me; a pretty good column from O: the Oprah Magazine or More (where she is an editor). It’s as if someone wanted more justification of the title and asked for an essay that was literally about leaping. I get it, but it’s merely fine, where much else in the memoir is lively and moving and strong.

She writes, for example, about coming to terms with not having children--even though their inability to have a child contributed to her and her husband’s divorce, even though, as she acknowledges, it seems that any upper-middle class American who wants a child just “gets” one somehow.

She writes also, movingly and with great strength about the history of herself as a feminist: the minor indignities and outrages that lead to a deep and abiding commitment.

And, for anyone who moves to New York, she writes terrifically detailed accounts of the delights and minor humiliations of living in the city, and the constant question: are you a New Yorker yet?

Living in Jersey, I’ve opted out of that, still, I was fascinated to read her subway tales. She writes of her wonder at riding the train with a friend who insists on getting in just the right car: the car, it turns out, that will mean he has no walk when he gets off at Christopher Street. She writes, too, of being amazed that anyone can read on the train when the train itself is so amazing. And then, of herself now, reading away, and thinking back. As someone who now reads on the train (or fiddles with my beloved iPhone, listening to my hoarded “free” songs from Starbucks. How I lap up the opportunity to get a free song with my $4 coffee!), I loved the pleasure of seeing my own history of thought about the commute in print.

The thing that the book does not, and cannot, resolve, is the thing that keeps these chapters lively and interesting: it’s a memoir of a woman who loves adventure and homemaking. She became a journalist and married a French theater-guy because of that love of a adventure. But she settled into a lovely cottage in St. Paul with a huge kitchen and dining room out of her love of home. What surprised her--her courage to pick up stakes and move--is also, it seems to this reader, wonderfully in character.


Anne Camille said...

I think I want to read this book. Over the last year of regular commuting to the NYC area and spending time on both sides of the Hudson, I do not know how many times people have said that I was 'becoming' a real New Yorker, but the benchmark to be one was never clear -- and certainly not attainable for a commuter from the Midwest. Learning how to read on the subway -- standing up -- was a big accomplishment, but I was always more interested in observing people. I frequently think of Pound's In a Station of the Metro when riding the subways. I could write tons more on this -- maybe I will soon on my own blog.

Unknown said...

Oh, Cam! I do think you'd like this a lot.


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