One-Minute Book Reviews

July 29, 2009

What It’s Like to Be Over 60 (or Over 70) – Quote of the Day / Diana Athill

Filed under: Late Night With Jan Harayda,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:00 pm
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Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End has many apt observations on youth and age, all written from the perspective of a former editor in her 90s.  A few I didn’t quote in the review posted earlier today:

On love: “… a broken heart mends much faster from a conclusive blow than it does from slow strangulation.”

On being over 60: “All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being ‘over seventy’ is being old: suddenly I was aground on that fact and saw that the time had come to size it up.”

On her waning interest in sex in old age: “An important aspect of the ebbing of sex was that other things became more interesting. Sex obliterates the individuality of young women more often than it does that of young men, because so much more of a woman than of a man is used by sex. I have tried to believe that most of this difference comes from conditioning, but can’t do so. Conditioning reinforces it, but essentially it is a matter of biological function. There is no reason why a man shouldn’t turn and walk away from any act of sex he performs, whereas every act of sex performed by a woman has the potential of changing her mode of being for the rest of her life. He simply triggers the existence of another human being; she has to build it out of her own physical substance, carry it inside her, bond with it whether she likes it or not – and to say that she has been freed from this by the pill is nonsense. She can prevent it, but only by drastic chemical intervention which throws her body’s natural behavior out of gear.”

Diana Athill’s Memoir, ‘Somewhere Towards the End’ – The Last Non-Lecture

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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An editor in her 90s writes about the end of her sex life and more

Somewhere Towards the End. By Diana Athill. Norton, 182 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Diana Athill has mastered that bittersweet negotiation with old age that the poet Elizabeth Bishop called “the art of losing.” Born in 1917, Athill worked for decades at an esteemed London publishing firm, where she edited the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul and others, and she has had a vibrant life that included an affair with the playwright Barry Reckord. In her new memoir, she writes eloquently of life after her retirement at the age of 75 – the ebbing of sexual desire, the deaths of friends, the pleasures of gardening and driving a car when the padding on the soles of her feet has grown so thin she is hard put to walk a hundred yards.

Somewhere Towards the End won a major British award for biography and reflects a keenly English sensibility rooted in the values of the world that existed before Starbucks moved into Victoria Station. Athill is by no means morbid. But neither does she lecture or assault you, as so many American authors do, with cloying euphemisms like “aging” – a word that, as Katha Pollitt has noted, applies to all of us: “A 50-year-old is aging at the same rate as a baby or a tree or a bottle of wine, exactly one second per second.”

Athill is matter-of-fact but discreet about events such as a miscarriage that nearly killed her and about the prostate troubles suffered by Reckord, with whom she lives. But her natural tact doesn’t preclude astute observations on life. In her last chapter, Athill avoids reaching for tidy lessons and observes instead that “most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to.”

Best line: As a student at Oxford in the 1930s, Athill told a man named Duncan that she had fallen away from the Christianity of her youth: “ … I said that though I was unable to believe in the god I had been taught to believe in, I supposed that some kind of First Cause had to be accepted. To which Duncan replied ‘Why? Might it not be that beginnings and endings are things we think in terms of simply because our minds are too primitive to conceive of anything else?’”

Worst Line: Athill writes of a 103-year-old woman who had a “positive attitude” (and, a page later, a “positive outlook”), a rare descent into cliché.

Recommendation? Somewhere Towards the End is more cohesive than the Nora Ephron’s entertaining but disjointed  I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, and reading groups might like to compare the two books.

Published: January 2009 (first American edition).

Furthermore: Somewhere Towards the End won the 2008 Costa Award for biography. Athill also wrote Stet: An Editor’s Life, a memoir of her years in book publishing. Other quotes from Somewhere Towards the End appeared on this site on July 17.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

More quotes from Somewhere Towards the End will be posted later today.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 18, 2009

Diana Athill Looks Back on a Life of Editing Books

Filed under: Memoirs,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:52 am
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Good memoirs by editors are rare. This sounds improbable but makes sense. Editors might come across as perjurers if late in life if they told the truth about authors they had spent their career promoting.

An editor who can write is Diana Athill, who looks back on her career in English book publishing in Stet: An Editor’s Life (Grove, 256 pp., $13, paperback). Athill edited the British editions of books by Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, John Updike and others. And she offers perceptive comments about her work in her elegant but unpretentious memoir. (“Writers don’t encounter really attentive readers as often as you might expect, and find them balm to their twitchy nerves when they do; which gives their editors a good start with them.”) At 91 she won an overseas award for her new memoir of old age, Somewhere Towards the End (Norton, 192 pp., $24.95), that she talks about in a Telegraph interview.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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