three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
user_rating: 
0

A-The Thing About Life"We’re just animals walking the earth for a brief time," asserts David Shields in this collection of brief essays. Interspersing his collection with biological facts, trivia, and famous quotations, Shields recounts episodes from his past—teenage acne, high school sweethearts, back problems—and explores his mixed feelings for his larger-than-life father, Milton Shields, whose vitality and optimism he both resents and envies. "He’s strong and he’s weak and I love him and I hate him and I want him to live forever and I want him to die tomorrow," he writes of the 97-year-old. Detailing the physical and mental processes of aging and the inevitability of death, Shields concludes that "life, in my view, is simple, tragic and eerily beautiful."
Knopf. 225 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 0307268047

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Such is the method in his good-humored madness: Mix equal parts of anatomy and autobiography, science and self-disclosure, physiology and family history; shake, stir, add dashes of miscellany, pinches of borrowed wisdom, simmer over a low-grade fever of mortality, and a terrible beauty of a book is born." Thomas Lynch

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"A tremendous amount of research concerning how humans develop and age went into the book, and when Shields sat down to write, he made a wise and generous decision: to convey what he learned in a confident but self-deprecating manner, the way a smart friend might share facts over the dinner table." Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett

Rocky Mountain News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s clear that Shields’ midlife journey plays a huge part of why he’s motivated to examine the way our bodies break down, but it’s his nearly schizophrenic emotions about his father that dominate the proceedings. … The result is a radically thought-provoking reflection on the nature of our bodies and whatever kind of meaning we can assign to them while the heart is still pumping and the neurons are still firing." Scott C. Yates

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The approach-avoidance technique that Shields employs as an author—diving fearlessly into his deepest feelings, then taking a quick turn toward the safety of the surface—may give the reader the literary bends. … His emotional revelations are so well crafted, the facts he includes so intelligently curated, one just goes on hoping it will all make sense at some point. It doesn’t." Meredith Maran

Houston Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"As we wend our way through the vignettes drawn from the Shields family history … it’s difficult to root for either the author’s weltschmerz or his father’s moxie. The conflict feels artificial, as if contrived to give his shapeless conglomeration of fatalistic quotes and anatomical information a backbone, so to speak." Eric Gerber

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"As one makes one’s way through each brief chapter-essay, this hodgepodge stubbornly refuses to become a whole. … And I would hesitate to show many of Shields’ scientific passages to a researcher in the areas he covers." Lizzie Skurnick

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"The Thing About Life is larded down with faddish miscellany, endless grab bags of quotes and microfacts that are supposed to illuminate but just clutter up the text. … Judging from this book, I’d rather be out playing tennis and chatting up the ladies with Milton than hanging around the house comparing Woody Allen quotes with the erudite, teetotaling David." Alex Beam

Critical Summary

Veteran writer David Shields’s examination of decrepitude and mortality defies categorization, consisting of "love and loathing, romance and biology, an encyclopedia of aging and a memoir of an adult son running to keep up with his 97-year-old father" (San Francisco Chronicle). Shields’s analysis of his conflicted relationship with Milton, of his cynical rebuttals to his father’s joie de vivre, lies at the heart of this dispassionate meditation. Several critics complained that the essays lack focus and list no sources for the many facts stated; others found the biological trivia overwhelming. Though interesting and revealing, The Thing About Life should not be read as "a treatise on the meaning of life: It’s really just a collection of facts and musings" (Rocky Mountain News).