Short Takes

Short Takes: Book reviews, in brief

January 16, 2014 


The Trip to Echo Spring:

On Writers and Drinking

Olivia Laing, Picador, 340 pages

In this reflection on six great alcoholic American writers – John Cheever, Raymond Carver, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Berryman and Tennessee Williams – Olivia Laing combines nonfiction narrative, travel writing, literary criticism and a touch of memoir in a personable style. Hilary Mantel, of “Wolf Hall” fame, says something on the book’s back cover that is worth repeating: “I’ve been trying to work out exactly how Olivia Laing drew me in, because I hardly drink myself and I have no particular attachment to the group of writers she describes.”

Laing takes her title from a passage in “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof”; Brick, the alcoholic son, escapes a lecture from Big Daddy by taking a “little short trip to Echo Spring.” This is code for the liquor cabinet, and the brand of bourbon inside it. Laing’s own journey to the metaphorical Echo Spring is a long meander by train, plane and automobile covering all the cities associated with these authors.

Without building to a specific point or climax, Laing keeps you on board through her journey, which ends at Carver’s grave, and then tacks on two key lists for reference: 1) the birth and death dates of her subjects and 2) the 12 steps of Alcoholic Anonymous. Your head filled with the questions and answers so interestingly raised here, you will want to take a long look at both.


My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind

Scott Stossel, Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages

Some 40 million Americans suffer from the gnawing unease of anxiety in its many forms. More people seek treatment for anxiety than for back pain.

Scott Stossel is one of those sufferers. In his brutally frank new book, he lays it all out there as he fathoms the contours of his affliction. “My Age of Anxiety” is a brave book, one that will leave you squirming and fascinated in equal measure. Stossel has lots of hang-ups: He’s afraid of flying, terrified of public speaking and pathologically averse to vomiting. There isn’t the space to list all his phobias.

On the one hand, Stossel is living proof that anxiety can be controlled. After all, he is editor of The Atlantic magazine and a successful author. Still, it’s been a struggle. He’s been in therapy for decades and is a walking A-Z of psychiatric drugs – Xanax, Zoloft, Prozac; you name it, he’s taken it. In these pages, he conducts a forensic examination of his own psyche, trawling through philosophy, theology, literature, case studies and scientific papers. He writes with unsparing intensity about his experiences, as well as his family’s psychological history – which, he admits, has not sat well with the extended Stossel clan. He details his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s overprotective parenting.

Without meaning to, Stossel has written a self-help manual. There is no miracle cure for anxiety, he suggests – we can manage our fears and worries, even if we can never quite tame them.


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