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?
Lessons from the Great Gardeners: Forty Gardening Icons & What They Teach Uspopped up, unbidden, in the Brooklyn Public Library’s online catalogue during a search for one of the gardeners profiled in its pages. It’s not the cheesy “lifestyle” book I was expecting, but a terrific primer on who matters in the gardening world, and why. The expertise of author Matthew Biggs comes through in his interesting, carefully chosen selections, and in his sensitive and intelligent writing.
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?”
Andrew Holleran’s 1978 novel, Dancer From the Dance, is about gay men in 1970s New York looking for love—and falling for the city itself. The romantic, elegiac tone has much in common with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. All three of these stories meditate on the power of beauty, mystery, doom, glamour, summer, and romance. All three are narrated by characters that stand outside the main action, and all three feature New York City as a central character. The city as it’s depicted here is more than a place: it’s an idea, often a romantic ideal, and sometimes a trap.
“To choose to live with a dog,” Mark Doty writes at the start of Dog Years: A Memoir, “is to agree to participate in a long process of interpretation—a mutual agreement, though the human being holds most of the cards.” In moving but restrained prose, Doty reveals the cards held closest to his chest: his feelings about loving and losing his canine companions, Arden and Beau.
Copy editor Mary Norris investigates grammar—its usage and history—and frequently digresses. These tangents are the heart and soul of this quirky book. Many of them relate to her investigation of the English language, some are deeply personal, and others concern her work at the influential weekly magazine, The New Yorker.
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.
I was watching a lot of the old Hammer Horror Dracula movies at the same time I was reading this, and I think there are a lot of similarities. Facing something scary and possibly unknown, you want to arm yourself with knowledge and weapons, however regressive they may be. Vampires hate sunlight, garlic, the sign of the cross, and holy water. Guys like a girl who looks “hot, hot, hot. Not slutty—sexy!” Guys like a chase.
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.’”
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark examines the personal life and career of Kael, who established herself, largely through her writing at The New Yorker, as the preeminent voice of 20th Century movie criticism. The book is well-written, well-researched, and Kellow does a good job of staying out of the way. What comes through is Kael’s voice.