Daum's 'The Unspeakable' Earns Widespread Praise

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05-Feb-15
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion (2014 Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the fourth book by alumna and adjunct faculty member Meghan Daum ('96), has been garnering positive notice since publishing late last year.

The Unspeakable
, a collection of essays, focuses on what its title suggestssubjects that are hard for Daum and others to address, such as her mother's death and her ambivalence about having children. She reflected on the latter in "Difference Maker," a piece about her experiences as a mentor and advocate for disadvantaged children that ran in The New Yorker in September and that is included in a modified form in the book:

"I thought I’d undertaken volunteer work with kids because I was, above all, a realist. I thought it showed the depth of my understanding of my own psyche. I thought it was a way of turning my limitations, specifically my reluctance to have children, into new and useful possibilities. I thought the thing I felt most guilty about could be turned into a force for good. But now I know that I was under the sway of my own complicated form of baby craziness. Wary as I’ve always been of our culture’s reflexive idealization—even obsessive sanctification—of the bond between parent and child, it seems that I fell for another kind of myth. I fell for the myth of the village. I fell for the idea that nurture from a loving adoptive community could erase or at least heal the abuses of horrible natural parents."
 
"To me, having 'material' for an essay means not only having something to write about but also having something interesting and original to say about whatever that might be. I’ve learned over the years that being interested in a particular subject or story does not guarantee you’ll have anything worthwhile to say about it," she told Cressida Leyshon in an interview that published on the New Yorker's website concurrently with the essay. ". . . All of the pieces in the book came out of a process of chewing on the subject matter until I felt confident that I’d be able to work out some kind of unexpected twist or turn in the narrative."

According to reviewers, the chewing has paid off.

"In its own understated, comic way, The Unspeakable is a very ambitious book, one that attempts to chart a personal evolution, while at the same time acknowledging that the idea of personal growth is at best absurd," Hannah Gersen wrote in a review for The Millions.

"Daum is pretty comfortable with who she is — and isn't," Heller McAlpin wrote in a review for the Los Angeles Times. “. . . . But though she occasionally expresses regret and shame in these essays, in general she's refreshingly at peace with her idiosyncrasies and limitations, including her antipathy to food and cooking, to having children and to wandering outside her comfort zone."

"There is no doubt Daum is a brilliant, incisive essayist," Roxane Gay, herself a lauded essayist, wrote in a review for The New York Times. "I would follow her words anywhere."

Daum, who is teaching a nonfiction workshop at Columbia this semester, is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and has also been published in The New Yorker, Harper's, GQ, and The Village Voice. Her previous books include the memoir Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House (Vintage 2010), the novel The Quality of Life Report (Penguin 2003) and the essay collection My Misspent Youth (2001). She is the editor of the anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, forthcoming from Picador in March.

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