Too many books are forgotten as soon as they're published—that doesn't mean they're not worth reading, writing, or talking about. My reading list is generated by interest, whim, and chance—and by what's available at the Brooklyn Public Library.
When writing my reviews, I don’t Google anything about the book or author. To draw my impressions, I rely only on the book itself.
By now, in the 21st Century, is there any aspect of American life that hasn’t been touched by corruption? What shocked in 1963, when The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford’s exposé of the funeral industry in 20th Century America, was published, wouldn’t cause an American alive today to so much as bat an eyelash, so accustomed are we to shock and scandal. What will jolt us from our moral stupor?
When I was in high school on Long Island in the 1990s, my dream was to be on Broadway. The idea then was to be a “triple-threat”—the best at singing, dancing, and acting. I had no idea how to go about this at all. I thought I could accomplish much in my room, alone, in secret. I scoured the pages of Backstage for auditions, and sent headshot photos with my meager resume stapled to the back. One listing was for a part I’d actually played in a regional theater, the role of the young romantic lead in a small, eight-person musical called The Fantasticks.
“What a waste of music not to take drugs!” opines drummer Patty Schemel in her 2017 memoir Hit So Hard(written with Erin Hosier). Sober since 2005, Schemel takes a look back at her life’s oppositional movements: her downward spiral into drugs and her rise to the rock ‘n roll top.
No Time Like the Present values responding over reacting, creating space to understand and contextualize feelings. Its tone is wondering, compassionate, encouraging, and kind. It is also slyly political. Kornfield writes, “Politicians and media feed our fears…Yes, there are big problems…If you only worry, you’ll feel overwhelmed. What is indisputable is that you are here, now, and you can contribute…You are free to contribute to this world—every moment, every day.” This call to action is the charge that all the drumbeats of the book seem to herald. Yet as Kornfield points out, “hatred never ceases by hatred, but by love alone is healed.”
The real mystery of Loving What Is is not its methodology, but its author. Who is Byron Katie? She was (and sometimes still is) a heavy smoker, calls people she doesn’t know “sweetheart” and “honey,” and sometimes writes and talks in a tone marked by exasperation: “Peace is who you already are, without a story. Can you just live it?”
By offering an informed, rigorous, sensitive, nuanced, and compassionate evaluation of Bernstein’s creative output, Shawn, a teacher of composition and music history at Bennington College, achieves a remarkable feat: he gives a master class in biography as music appreciation.
Part of the pleasure for me in discovering and reading this book was remembering a world of the “armchair traveler,” when imagination made the only pictures the mind saw of a trip. This book was published in 1999, pre-European Union. This was before the heyday of the internet, and the age of global tourism, when for many people Paris wasn’t a place, but an idea.
Reading a celebrity memoir, one is naturally curious about how that person became famous. If the book isn’t well-written, everything comes across as cliché. If it lingers too long in the time before success, the reader gets impatient to get to “their big break.” (I would argue this is because their fame is “where we know them,” so to speak.) Reading about a celebrity who isn’t well known to you, you’re either bored, or looking for clues to solve a mystery: what makes this person special? Liv Ullman, the author of Changing, was one of director Ingmar Bergman’s leading ladies and the mother of one of his children. I’ve seen only a few of her films. Things about Changing perplexed me, but I was never bored.
Picasso and Dora strikes me as a faithful account, but admirably it’s not to James’s own vanity. He comes across as the worst of the lot. Even his own mother remarks at one point, “‘I’m sure it’s very interesting for you to have met these famous people, but I can’t help wondering what it is they see in you.’”