In Coral Gables last night the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office was celebrating the Centennial of the Republic of China while, a few blocks away, Stacy Schiff was reading at Books & Books. I chose to hang with the Taiwanese, which meant I missed my chance to ask the author of Cleopatra about her recent review of a collection by one of my favorite authors. On the off chance that Ms. Schiff reads this blog, I am copying the letter I wrote to the New York Times Book Review (which chose not to publish it):
I hope that Stacy Schiff’s complaint of occasional staleness in Jonathan Raban’s essay collection “Driving Home” (Sept. 18) doesn’t discourage potential readers, especially since the charge, in at least one instance, is grossly unjustified.
Considering Raban’s account of the Mississippi floods of 1993, Schiff writes that it is “closely observed” but “difficult to appreciate” in the aftermath of Katrina. Yet the two disasters have almost no connection; Raban, on this trip, never ventured south of Missouri.
And “closely observed” is faint praise for a masterpiece of literary nonfiction that combines exhaustive reportage with brilliant interpretation. In it, Raban captured not only the news of rising water but also the essence of a Midwestern ethos – and, breathtakingly, tied the two together. “Flying to Minneapolis from the West, you see it as a theological problem,” the piece begins, and then goes on to compare the unruly river, in this “right-angled, right-thinking Lutheran country,” to “John Calvin’s bad temper ... the wild beast in the heart of the heartland.” For nearly two decades I have read aloud the first page of “Mississippi Water” to travel writing students, and no one has ever complained of a lack of freshness. Great writing has no sell-by date.