Anne Fadiman’s ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ a graceful ode to her father

  • Kirkus Reviews
12:00 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 Insight and Books
‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter,’ Anne Fadiman

Anne Fadiman (“At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist,” 2008) decants a harmonious blend of biography, wine lore and memoir in “The Wine Lover’s Daughter,” an account of a literary daughter’s relationship with her celebrated literary father.

Born into a secular Jewish family in Brooklyn, Clifton Fadiman (1904-1999) spent his adult life submerging that identity beneath WASP sensibilities and pursuits. His belief that Jewishness was a cultural and career impediment and his envy of WASP privilege were powerful motivators to escape his origins, in the 1930s and beyond. As revealed by his daughter, Fadiman’s was almost entirely a life of the mind. Physically clumsy, he was unacquainted with much of life beyond its gustatory or literary pleasures. Though thwarted in his desire to become an academic, he emerged as a self-invented, ardent public intellectual of the first rank. Before the age of 30, he had served as editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and head of the book review section at the New Yorker. His friends and colleagues were a who’s who of celebrated litterateurs of the time, and the gleam of a life in letters was not lost on his daughter. Despite considerable renown, the refined yet self-effacing Fadiman always regarded himself as an outsider and, in darker moments, even an impostor. The author’s mother, by contrast, was of mixed Presbyterian and Mormon stock, an accomplished journalist and screenwriter who relinquished her career to marriage. Anne Fadiman, writer-in-residence at Yale and winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award, grew up in a prosperous, secular, decidedly rational household. Always there were books and a civilizing force embodied by wine, a taste for which she did not share. In limning her father, Fadiman also lays a gradual accretion of detail about herself, but she is careful never to eclipse his (regrettably) diminished star.

Reading this daughter’s graceful, often melodious billet-doux to her father is not unlike imbibing several equally felicitous glasses of wine, their salutary effects leaving one pleasantly sated.

Day-to-day space travel

Scott Kelly, a four-time veteran of off-planet missions, including a year aboard the International Space Station, offers a view of astronautics that is at once compelling and cautionary in “Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery.”

Why go into space in the first place? Kelly ponders that existential question early on, the whys and wherefores of entering into the strangest of strange environments and potentially suffering all manner of consequences. He replies, “I have a few answers I give to this question, but none of them feels fully satisfying to me.” Among those answers, perhaps, are because it’s extremely exciting to go where no one — very few people, anyway — has gone before, and after all, Kelly still holds the American record for consecutive days spent in outer space. Naturally, that comes at a cost; his book opens with an alarming portrait of edema, rashes and malaise, and hence another answer emerges: We can’t go to, say, Mars without understanding what space flight does to a human body. Some of Kelly’s descriptions seem a little by-the-numbers, the equivalent of a ballplayer’s thanking the deity for a win — a spacegoing colleague is “sincere and enthusiastic without ever seeming fake or calculating,” while a Russian counterpart is “a quiet and thoughtful person, consistently reliable.” Nonetheless, Kelly’s book shines in its depiction of the day-to-day work of astronautics and more particularly where that work involves international cooperation. On that score, there’s no better account of the cultural differences between Right Stuff–inculcated NASA types and Yuri Gagarin–inspired cosmonauts: “One difference between the Russian approach to spacewalking and ours,” he writes, “is that the Russians stop working when it’s dark.” It’s fascinating stuff, a tale of aches and pains, of boredom punctuated by terror and worries about what’s happening in the dark and back down on Earth.

“Endurance” is a worthy read for space buffs, to say nothing of anyone contemplating a voyage to the stars.

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