Tidewater Review - June 2013

I Can't Complain: All Too Personal Essays

as reviewed by

Anne Stinson

I Can’t Complain ~ All Too Personal Essays by Elinor Lipman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 161 pp. $20.

Do not, repeat NOT, graze across the first pages of this apparently mild and banal perusal of an autobiographical grab-bag of the author’s life. It reveals nothing very grabbing or remarkable in her introduction to a happy family. In no particular time sequence, she invites the reader to Chapter One, Meet The Family. Elinor commences with Julia’s Child ~ Julia being her mother’s name.
Elinor concentrates on her mother in more detail than she does herself. What piques a hint of curiosity, however, is its off-beat focus. Elinor’s mother, a very good cook, was contemptuous of all condiments added to recipes or to finished dishes. She had a particular loathing of ketchup. It was at the top of a list of other banned additions that included pickles, salad dressings, relishes, mustards, barbecue sauces of any kind and (horrors!) mayonnaise. All were considered unnecessary and ruinous to food’s natural flavor.
Dad’s personality follows with funny quirks and an immense love for his two daughters. The humor takes a bigger role in the flowing account of her mixed marriage and motherhood in the How to Get Religion entry.
Tucked in among Lipman’s brief essays (some as short as three pages) are wonderful coping strategies for readers in any role, as stay-at-home mothers, as well as the vagaries of demands on working women, especially busy writers like Lipman.
Essentially she separates invitations and/or requests into two groups: family gatherings that spring no surprises on the guests, and those from groups of takers. The latter are hosts who use smarmy flattery with such “little” requests as “would I have a minute to describe how the entire publishing industry works and how one goes about getting an agent?” And that’s only the beginning.
By this time your critic is noting the humor, the droll compassion and the irritation for others’ gall. How could I ever have prejudged this author to be nice but dull?
By the time the reader turns the page to Lipman’s account of her nine-year-old son’s introduction to Sex-Ed in school, her candor and response to the boy’s questions for clarification are dealt with summarily.
“Um, let’s go ask Daddy,” she advises Ben. “He’s a doctor.” Daddy, indeed a doctor, explained the procedure to Ben’s satisfaction ... for a few days, until he had another question when Daddy wasn’t home. That’s when Elinor decided that his curiosity had manufactured a less-than-accurate grasp of the facts.
“I was learning something valuable; one shouldn’t push the facts of life too early,” she writes.
Her essay titled My Soap Opera Journal is a hilarious account of her and all her friends’ addiction to a generally considered non-literary field of entertainment. Not so at all, she argues. The ability to write witty and engrossing dialog and plot twists that have to be replaced every day for five days a week would make any novelist envious.
The real meat in the sandwich of this book of meanderings is most delicious in the middle layers under the heading On Writing. Lipman’s comments are as pithy as they are wise.
Her no-nonsense rules include a way to decide “thanks” or “no thanks” to the opportunity to take time out of her busy schedule to read a book and write a blurb. She has almost never bought a book because it had a favorable blurb on its cover. Indeed, she’s more likely to bypass a book if its rave is signed by “a pretentious jackass with whom I’ve had the misfortune to serve on a panel.”
No, she avers, she doesn’t write an outline before she begins to write a novel. That admission seems peculiar to many of her listeners at bookstores and book groups.
She’s routinely quizzed about it in the question periods after her talks. She often explains her plunging ahead with a squelcher: “Flannery O’Connor, I tell them, also wrote by the seat of her pants, but she called herself an intuitive writer. Intuitive. I like that.”
And, yes, sometimes her characters want to take over the story and start calling the shots. She deals with it. She generously shares her cures with any writer who wants to try them.
In another progress-stopper, she tells what tools she uses to find the right names for her characters and why that’s an important element. The right names give the reader a clue to the social level, the family background and maybe education level/job status of the character. Even the food they eat is a clue to their identity. For example, she cites the kitchen supper menus in the book. What do these choices tell the reader about the people at the table? Pot roast with mac ’n cheese? Salad with iceberg or arugula? Tenderloin or tofu? Need she say more?
For a laugh-out-loud romp, Lipman outlines the guilty fun during her assignment to write a piece for the Boston Globe on her guess how Sex in the City would end. To even tip off the machinations would be unfair to Lipman’s talent for poking fun at herself.
On the issue of patience, she relates how it took 20 years to see one of her novels made into a movie.
The final third of the book becomes more opinionated in a gentle way ~ one doubts Lipman could be didactic or nasty ~ with a dig at a common assumption that men and women have to share their interests.
In Boy Meets Girl, she snorts at an episode on the Oprah Winfrey show that examined the attitudes of unhappy bachelors in Alaska with their complaints. Too few women fit their requirements. They wanted gals who loved hunting, fishing, camping, and riding snowmobiles. Oprah did not question their preferences, Lipman noted, nor their firm belief that “eligibles that dogsled together, bed together...”
Nonsense, writes the ultimate urban citizen. Men should by nature do what they do, and women follow their own choices, not expecting her partner to love knitting just because she finds it relaxing. Romance is one thing: romantic nonsense is quite another.
Lipman’s critique of weddings, bridezillas, bridesmaids, conspicuous consumption, etc. are the follies that may account for disappointment and the high divorce rate, she warns.
Her marriage was a happy one, ending ultimately when her husband died of two dreadful diseases, a rare type of dementia, followed by ALS, Lou Gherig’s Disease. He died at age 58.
Now, at the age of 61, three years after her husband’s death, she has a gentleman friend. She calls the relationship with “John Doe” a nomance ~ platonic pleasure made up of good conversation, an occasional movie, dinner out and companionship. She makes it clear that she does not appreciate prodding from women friends “who all want to be bridesmaids” and want to know if the friendship has “advanced to a stage requiring new undergarments.” No, she says, and may never. Her response to them is mainly a request for them to butt out.
The whole book is a treat, a generous gift from a wonderful woman. It’s a read-it-again-slowly kind of book. Funny, sweet and completely nice. Don’t pass it by.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.