If you believe that the "familiar essay" as practised by Charles Lamb went out of style when Victoria was a lass, prepare to be wittily reproached. Anne Fadiman, the New York writer and bibliophile who somehow kept an old-world banter and courtesy alive in Manhattan, revives a genre of essay that wears its learning ultra-light. From coffee and its delights and the bliss of ice-cream to the night-owl habits shared only by her daughter's hamster ("the other nocturnal mammal in the family"), Fadiman could charm the early birds – such as her husband – from the trees. Does she OD on whimsy? Possibly – but, like cream on espresso, a hit lies under the froth. A piece on showing the flag after 9/11 argues that she could "choose another meaning" for the Stars and Stripes to the one preferred by anti-Muslim mobs.