Messud reflects on a childhood move from her Connecticut home to Australia; the complex relationship between her modern Canadian mother and a fiercely single French Catholic aunt; and a trip to Beirut, where her pied-noir father had once lived, while he was dying. She meditates on contemporary classics from Kazuo Ishiguro, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, and Valeria Luiselli. She explores her drive to write.
Our Dogs is one of about 25 essays in Kant’s Little Prussian Head and Other Reasons Why I Write, and it’s in many ways emblematic — the elegance of it, the challenge of it. Messud isn’t a writer who grabs her subject matter by the throat or pumps her prose full of kinetic energy. She moseys, she circles, she lies in wait. She sighs where others might scream, mists up where others might sob, ponders 'holistic foulness' where others might just run for the cleaner-smelling hills ... But more often than not, it works. There’s usually a moral in her sights, one worth getting to, and there’s sometimes a deceptively strong current of feeling beneath a surface of reserve. I didn’t gobble these essays down, as I would a bucket of buttered popcorn. I savored them in unhurried spoonfuls, as with a bowl of glistening consommé. And I felt amply fed ... These essays don’t carry the same weight or deliver the same punch [as Open City demonstrates her great talent for enlarging the context of whatever she’s writing about and weaving in astute bits of broader commentary. It also captures her determinedly elevated tone and vocabulary, which won’t be to every reader’s taste ... The ending of her take on The Door demonstrates her even greater talent for bringing her essays to a poignant, haunting close, with a few final phrases that distill the meaning of all that preceded them and send a kind of shudder through your mind and heart. If she were a gymnast, she’d be renowned for sticking her landings ... That’s why Messud writes. It gives the past a future.
Even the title of this richly drawn anthology of more than two dozen essays, Kant's Little Prussian Head and Other REasons Why I Write, speaks to the dry wit and arresting spontaneity that permeate her very personal reflections on life, great authors of the past and present, and art in various forms. Although at the peak of her creative power, Messud also seems to be casting an experienced retrospective eye over several decades of critically acclaimed writing ... concentrated and vibrant prose ... Every page exudes her quiet yet compelling joy in the power of well-nourished language, a vast vocabulary treated with the awe and reverence that a great painter treats the endless potentialities of color or a composer the myriad combinations of notes in a score. Where arrogance will throw words, colors or sounds onto the page in clever combinations, mindful greatness will patiently blend and mold them into uniquely memorable sensory and emotional experiences ... Messud could easily and successfully have collected or composed all of her essays in the autobiographical vein but stretches the promise of the book’s subtitle by dividing her anthology into three unequal parts. Whether or not they should have been three separate books is difficult to decide, as they all express aspects of her own character as well as that of the individuals enlarged by her acute observations.
She risks coming across as elitist — ouroboros, for those who lack her formidable vocabulary, refers to a snake swallowing its own tail — but her intent is generous ... Her faith is quite possibly unrealistic, but couched in Messud’s lucid, quietly fiery prose, it’s also inspiring ... Messud communicates that inner life and the outer trappings of her peripatetic childhood with marvelous particularity, capturing in palpable, resonant detail various family homes and intricate familial interactions ... astute ... Progressing from Messud’s autobiographical essays through her criticism, we come to understand what she most values in art.