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?”
“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.
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.
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.