two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
18-Sept-Oct-2005
By: 
James Atlas
user_rating: 
0

A Survivor’s Tale

A-MyLifeMiddleAgesIn his collection of 11 essays about reaching the threshold of old age, Atlas charts an original course between reportage and confession. He offers a portrait of experience drawn from his own life, from the testimony of parents, children, teachers, and friends to the books he’s read and the life he’s chosen. Our ‘40s and ‘50s, which we optimistically call "middle age," represent the decades for regrets and acceptance, when we discover at last who we really are. Pensive and funny, comical and perceptive, My Life in the Middle Ages is a meditation on life, death, and fulfillment in one’s autumnal years.
HarperCollins. 240 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0060196297

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"By the time Atlas reaches the hard-won conclusion that he can ‘be happy for the simple reason that I’m not dead, have enough money, and no one I love is sick,’ it has become apparent that his subtitle is justified: He is a survivor. And he has lived to write what just may turn out to be the definitive testament of the middle-aged baby boomer." Martin Rubin

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Intensely personal, emotional, and filled with many pains and laughs, his book is a picture of the baby-boomer generation enduring the hail of time and age. Not the whole cohort, necessarily, but mainly Atlas’s set: relatively soft and comfortable, untouched by war or poverty, immersed in a New York-centric world of writing, publishing, and all-around intellection." David Mehegan

NY Times Book Review 2.5 of 5 Stars
"My Life in the Middle Ages is a chatty book, and the chat is frequently engaging, even if the reader feels the urge to move down the bar from the guy who’s had one Perrier and lime too many. To have worked for The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Book Review and The Times Magazine, in addition to the mystery newsweekly, to have punctuated those jobs with the writing of well-received biographies, and then to write a book bleating about a lack of fulfillment seems like self-pity, and people who are self-pitying are boring, as a friend of mine, ‘a successful poet,’ used to say." James Campbell

PopMatters 2 of 5 Stars
"As the author of critically acclaimed biographies of Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow and founding editor of the Penguin Lives series, Atlas knows how to tell the story of someone’s life in a compelling, wonderfully insightful way. But can he do the same with his own? The results are decidedly mixed."
Jordan Adair

Seattle Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Despite the crystal-clear moments, My Life in the Middle Ages is a hit-or-miss journey, like life. Much of (Atlas’s) angst and doubt feels like his alone rather than a greater baby-boomer curse." Richard Seven

Newsday 1 of 5 Stars
"Ralph Waldo Emerson said that reading a great writer let him glimpse his own thoughts illuminated with borrowed glory. But the experience of reading My Life in the Middle Ages mostly left me remembering that it’s time to get a filling replaced." Scott McLemee

Critical Summary

The author evaluates his rites of passage—both the successes and the failures, from his 25th anniversary to his father’s death—with good humor, affection, and honesty in this "generational memoir." An amiable book, some sections may seem short on specifics and long on generalizations, even to the point of being preachy. Not all reviewers found universal appeal in Atlas’s reflections; some found them self-indulgent and of interest mostly to other upper-middle-class literary urbanites.