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.
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.
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.
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.’”