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Are You Happy?: A Childhood Rememberedby Emily Fox Gordon
Synopses & Reviews
"The happiness of childhood is existential, not psychological," writes Emily Fox Gordon. Are You Happy? is an evocation of a peculiar and paradoxical kind of happiness — the happiness of an unhappy child. Gordon was a fatty, an academic failure, a schoolyard pariah, a disappointment to her highly educated parents. And yet her early life was, as she puts it, "a succession of moments of radiant apprehension." In a later age she might have been medicated and counseled and ferried from one appointment to another. But growing up in the college town of Williamstown, Massachusetts, in the fifties, she spent her days rambling through woods and meadows, rattling around in the basements of college buildings and dropping in on student acquaintances via the fire escapes of dormitories. She was free to be alone with her thoughts, to mumble observations and descriptions as she cultivated the writer's lifelong habit of translating experience into words.
In the hands of this exceptional stylist and rigorous, elegant thinker, we understand how happiness can be recaptured through telling the story of its loss. As Gordon grew older, she began to be aware of her charming mother's long, slow withdrawal into alcoholic depression. This was a new kind of observation, made from the outside. Having learned to assume this perspective, Gordon began to see happiness as something outside herself, something she could appropriate from the world and make her own. In Are You Happy? Gordon recounts how her childish view the world was lost, and of how that loss ended her childhood.
Depicted here is the evolution of a wise and perceptive child's self-awareness — and as such, it is an exemplar of the examined life.
"The answer to the question posed by such a title would seem, inevitably, to be 'no,' but Gordon qualifies her frequent tears as 'the manifestation of a particularly satisfying kind of lyrical sadness.' This is her second venture into memoir, following the well-reviewed Mockingbird Years, an account of her institutionalization as a late teenager and subsequent therapy. This book covers her earlier, 1950s childhood as the daughter of a miserly and often hectoring Jewish economics professor at Williams College, whom she claims to have hated, and his eventually alcoholic Presbyterian schoolteacher wife. Though bright (readers are told frequently), Gordon felt like a 'misfit'; an overweight, underachieving faculty brat; a 'social pariah'; a 'blob.' By sixth grade, she was failing school and, like her classmates, fascinated by sex. A crush on her voice coach led her to try to implicate his wife in an affair with the soccer coach, but the lie was easily discovered, leaving her humiliated and eager to move with her parents from the Berkshires to Manhattan for a fresh start. The book, about childhood friends and teachers, too, analyzes Gordon's parents throughout. Early on, Gordon comments, 'There's nothing more tiresome than a grown daughter's brief against her parents.' Indeed." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Hopefully this cathartic work will allow Gordon to move on and turn her considerable talents loose on a larger world." Booklist
"[Gordon's] writing...is skillful, and her account is replete with lurid scenes....A wistful coming-of-age tale." Kirkus Reviews
"Gordon...writes lyrically and convincingly about the subtle joys of childhood..." Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Gordon is — as readers of her first memoir...know — a terrific writer." New York Times Book Review
"[W]hile Mockingbird [Years] (a New York Times Notable Book) was deeply affecting, this new work lacks the same impact." Library Journal
From a memoirist of great style and insight comes an elegant dissection of how youthful happiness is lost.
About the Author
Emily Fox Gordon has published personal essays in Boulevard, Salmagundi, and the American Scholar, among other literary magazines. Her work has won two Pushcart Prizes and has been shortlisted in Best American Essays, and three of her essays were anthologized in the Anchor Essay Annual. An essay about her hospitalization as a teenager at Austen Riggs formed the basis for Mockingbird Years (2000), a memoir which was also a critique of psychotherapy. Mockingbird Years was named a New York Times Notable Book and was chosen as one of Amazon.com's top ten memoirs for the year. It also received glowing front-page consideration in the New York Times Book Review and was subsequently translated into Hebrew and Chinese.
Gordon has been awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell colony. She has developed a strong interest in teaching as well, and has taught workshops at Rice University, Houston?s INPRINT program, and the University of Wyoming. Her new memoir, Are You Happy?, began, like its predecessor, as an essay. Emily Fox Gordon lives in Houston, Texas.
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