If you read this blog with any regularity, you might assume that I read only thrillers, memoirs and cookbooks. Of course, having just said that, I realize how very flattering to myself I’m being to even imagine that you’d devote a spare moment toward considering my reading habits. In any case, I am, in fact, a huge fan of humorous writing – both fiction and non. Of course “funny” is subjective but I consistently find myself favoring sly, ironic, often British, writing such as that practiced by H. H. Munro – better known as Saki – and Pelham Grenville Wodehouse – better known as P. G. Wodehouse. I have also enjoyed some of Dorothy Parker’s and Christopher Moore’s writing as well as the absurdities and antic word plays of James Thurber. But one of the writers I have most enjoyed over the years is someone who is still active today – Calvin Trillin.
Trillin, primarily a print journalist, has worked for Time magazine as well as The Nation and is currently on the staff of The New Yorker. In fact, it was his reporting for the latter on the integration of the University of Georgia that became his first book, An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and the integration of the University of Georgia. Trillin is also a well-known poet – particularly on the subject of politics. The George W. Bush presidency, in particular, receives his wry treatment in Obliviously On He Sails and A Heckuva Job. More recent poems appear in Dogfight: the 2012 Presidential campaign in verse. Trillin is also the author of a well-received (and very funny) novel Tepper Isn’t Going Out. As may be apparent, Trillin addresses a wide range of subjects in his writing but the concerns that seem to be closest to his heart are travel, food and family. In fact, it is Trillin’s family stories which are some of the most interesting and emotionally rewarding.
His daughters, Abigail and Sarah, have appeared often in his essays – and still do even though both are adults now with families of their own. Both girls, even raised as they were in the culinary paradise of New York City by parents with adventurous tastes, were apparently extremely picky eaters. Which is perhaps odd…or maybe not odd at all. The young Sarah, for example, always insisted on carrying a bagel with her on family trips to New York “just in case.” Abigail, who sounds like the soul of kindness, was “complimenting me on my Cheerios until she wised up at about the age of three.” Trillin’s Family Man is a delightful meditation on the anxieties and joys of raising children written by a man who clearly – and very happily – has always put his family at the very center of his life. Just as lovely, and to my mind incredibly moving, is his portrait of his wife, Alice Stewart Trillin who died of heart disease on September 11, 2001. About Alice is a wonderful tribute to a woman who he clearly adored and who, from the moment he first met her in 1963, never stopped trying to impress.
It was Trillin’s food writing though that hooked me first, most specifically, the so-called Tummy Trilogy – which consists of the books American Fried, Alice, Let’s Eat and Third Helpings (you can find the first and the third of these at DCPL). Trillin makes it clear that he isn’t much of a cook saying that, in the kitchen, he is “more of an idea man.” Still his culinary writing reveals the open mind, liberal taste buds and zestful approach to living that signify a gourmet of the best sort. Some of Trillin’s funniest quotes come from these books, for example:
(on revolving dining palaces situated at the top of tall buildings) “I never eat in a restaurant that’s over a hundred feet off the ground and won’t stand still.”
(on his mother’s cooking) “The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”
(speaking as a proud Mid-Western son about his native city) “The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City.”
You can find more of Trillin’s very amusing culinary essays in Feeding a Yen: savoring local specialities from Kansas City to Cuzco. For a worthwhile general sampling of his writing, check out Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin; forty years of funny stuff.
How about you? Are you a fan of humorous writing and, if so, who do you recommend that I read next?