Monday, December 28, 2009

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg

Around 1986, I took off for The New England Writer’s Conference in Boston. The conference was held at Simmons College near Fenway Park. John Updike was the keynote speaker, and his son David led a class in the short story. Those early days of my first attempts at writing drew me there for a chance to see and hear and meet John Updike and attend his son’s class.

Little did I know that another person I would meet would also have a lasting effect on my reading and writing life. One of the students in the class was a young woman who wrote tips for mothers of toddlers who read Parent’s Magazine. I believe she had just been appointed an associate editor, and was then writing a monthly column. Since then, I have avidly followed the career of Elizabeth Berg. She has written nearly 20 novels, a book of non-fiction, and adapted one of her novels for the stage.

While some might characterize her fiction as oriented toward women readers, I thoroughly enjoy the humor, the psychological insights, and the finely drawn characters in every one of her books.

I first received a copy of this work as an audio book through the early reviewer’s program of Incidentally, this website is a great resource for readers and collectors. On a long drive, we listened to Elizabeth Berg read this collection. The strong women characters and their relationships, enthralled me from beginning to end. As soon as I could, I purchased a copy of the book, and re-read the stories, to savor them again. As you might expect, again I could hear Elizabeth’s voice. The actual reading allowed me to spend more time pouring over the finer pieces of prose Berg has written.

Most of the stories revolve around food and eating. In the title story, Berg wrote, “Here is my favorite recipe: Buy two boxes of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Make one box of macaroni but use both cheeses. Telling you this, I just remembered this woman I really liked a lot who died and she loved egg salad more than anything and didn’t eat it for years because it was bad for her and then when she was on her deathbed and could have anything she wanted, she was given an egg salad sandwich and she couldn’t eat it anymore” (11). This mixture of reflection and clever prose can be found on any page of this collection. I think I'll have another piece of chocolate.

The most poignant story, however, is “Rain.” This story tells about a platonic relationship between the un-named narrator and Michael, an old friend. Michael has invited her to see a house he has built himself in rural Massachusetts. With a certain amount of reluctance, her husband urges her to visit him. She remembers how she and Michael together when they were younger and reflects on why they never developed a close relationship. Berg writes, “I told myself it was because we were never between relationships at the same time, but I also sensed that, if I moved too close to Michael, I’d lose him” (77).

This remote cabin happened after Michael threw off the shackles that tied him to corporate America, and he opted for a Thoreauesque existence in the woods, replacing a pay check with odd jobs, making his own furniture, and growing his own food. The narrator thinks, “Seeing Michael’s place filled me with conflicting emotions. I was happy for him, glad he’d stood in the middle of his kitchen one random day and pulled the veil from his heart’s desire” (80). Lovely, lovely prose. All these stories are priceless nuggets of gold to polish over and over with slow re-reading.

During the class, I took a picture of all the students, and I promised Elizabeth – and the other students – I would not share those photos. I have kept my promise, and now I have a wonderful collection of her work, her voice, and her image from that class.

--Chiron, 12/28/09

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