I am a longstanding Calvin Trillin fan. I like his wry humor, his stories, his silly poetry. I still quote from Alice, Let’s Eat, pointing to offending dishes and muttering “Stuff-Stuff with Heavy.”*
I have read about his travels, his love affair with food, his family. And about Alice, his wife. Who died in 2001. On September 11. And somehow the tragedy of that day became all the worse because of this loss. I did not know Alice, yet she was such a constant in Trillin’s writings, it felt as though I should.
A week ago, I saw About Alice on a bargain shelf and snapped it up. Published in 2006, it is Trillin’s ode to Alice. I read the slim volume within an evening.
Now let me be up front. This is a sentimental book. If you don’t like sentimental books, don’t read any further. This won’t be for you. But if you like quirky biographies, where every page reveals the writer’s love for his subject, then this may work.
In a series of lively short chapters filled with humorous and sometimes touching anecdotes, Trillin describes different aspects of Alice. She was a person whom other people loved and respected—because she dropped everything, when need arose, to assist even strangers. She was beautiful, very beautiful—which she understood could be especially useful when facing a speeding ticket. But more than beauty, she was accomplished in the practical things that keep people’s lives together—the business end of things—managing the life of her husband and children, her parents’, and any job she worked on. She fought cancer, winning the battle for 25 years while helping others in their fight with the disease. She was Trillin’s first reader and essential editor, able to tell him what words like “heuristics” meant. And she was a fierce and dedicated mother, refusing to allow her daughter Abigail to reschedule her wedding despite Alice’s failing health and series of hospitalizations, walking Abigail down the aisle in the nick of time.
Though the book is about loss, Trillin made me laugh. He wrote a beautiful love story—with a tragic ending, as so many are. But beautiful and sweet.
*Trillin described this as an English style of continental cuisine where the height of sophistication
was to stuff something with something—almost anything—else, and then to obscure the scene of the crime with a heavy, lava-like sauce.Several layers of stuffing were ideal—chicken breast stuffed with a plum, in turn stuffed with an almond, which, if it could be accomplished, should be stuffed with paté.