Though Secret Brooklyn is a guidebook (separated into sections by neighborhood, with color photos and page-long listings about various places/attractions), I think it’d be useful only to very intrepid tourists. I think it’s a better book for NYC/Brooklyn residents who are interested in the weird/quirky/overlooked: there are some things in this book I would go out of my way to go to, but there are more spots that are just cool to read about, especially if they’re things I’ve passed by without even knowing about them. There are places in this book that are familiar to me, and others that are totally new to me. I had no idea, for example, that there are two fragments of Plymouth Rock in Brooklyn Heights, or that the doors of a Lebanese church in that neighborhood are from the SS Normandie. I didn’t know that the blue-and-yellow “L” tiling in the Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station advertises a long-gone department store (Loeser’s), or that the silver-gated area you can see next to the F-train track at Jay Street was where money was unloaded from a special train that ran until 2006, or that there’s a cheese-aging business in an old brewery building’s lagering tunnel, right next to a beer-hall that I’ve been to more than once. I love that this book includes a listing for the Pratt Institute Steam Plant, which used to power my favorite New Year’s Eve event, though when I tried to take my boyfriend to look at the steam plant last year, it was locked and we were only able to peer in through the interior windows. I like that it mentions the abandoned lower-level Bergen Street subway station, which you can see from the train when the F runs on the express track. I like that it mentions the Masstransiscope, and the eruvin that serve as loopholes to the “no carrying things on the Sabbath” rule for Orthodox Jews, and how it calls out interesting parts of well-known attractions, like the Fragrance Garden at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (which I love), or the Statue of Liberty replica in the parking lot at the Brooklyn Museum (whose story I hadn’t previously known). And I love this, from the listing for the City Reliquary (which is definitely worth a visit): “You may not know yet that you’re interested in scale models of the Statue of Liberty, or the skeletons of urban rats, or rock samples from the different New York boroughs. But you probably are. Helping you realize this is what The City Reliquary in Williamsburg is about” (65). If those few sentences appeal to you, the rest of this book probably will, too.

Despite loving Roz Chast’s work whenever I see it in the New Yorker (speaking of which: her recent cover is amazing), I hadn’t known she had written a book about NYC until Jenny from Reading the End mentioned it in a comment here last year. I immediately put a hold on it at the library, and after a lengthy wait, it finally arrived, right as I found my normal reading routines upended by an injury that means I can’t currently hold anything heavier than a coffee cup in my right hand, which makes reading on the subway pretty much impossible.

Ah well: this ended up being a perfect book to read on my couch in two sittings, though I am not entirely its ideal audience. I came to NYC for college and stayed after graduation: I’ve now been here for nearly 18 years if you count my time in college; I’ve lived in Brooklyn for nearly 14 years. So I don’t really need an explanation of uptown/downtown, how streets and avenues work, and where the different Manhattan subway lines go. That said, Chast’s style, both narration-wise and illustration-wise, totally works for me, so even her descriptions of basic Manhattan geography had their charm. (This book got its start as a guide for Chast’s daughter, who grew up in the suburbs and came to NYC for college, so it’s a little bit of a beginner’s guide to the city, but it’s also more than that.)

Where this book shines, for me, is in the more personal bits: the parts about Chast’s favorite things in NYC, the parts that capture her style and sensibility and sense of humor and way of looking at the world. There’s a bit about the time when Chast found an unusual item on the sidewalk that I’d read previously (I think it was published in the New Yorker) that still made me laugh out loud this time around. There are bits about the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. There’s a drawing of a street tree in winter with plastic bags caught in its branches, whose accompanying text is just: “If Manhattan had an official tree, it would be this one” (125). There are multiple bits about the pleasures of walking in the city, which I relate to a whole lot. “I am interested in the person-made,” Chast writes, and continues: “I like to watch and eavesdrop on people. And I really like DENSITY OF VISUAL INFORMATION” (40). (Which is followed by the totally excellent image you can see as the lead illustration in this NPR piece.) “If you are feeling antsy or out of sorts,” Chast advises, “pick a street and walk across it from coast to coast. Any street will do. The more nondescript your street is, the greater chance you have of making your own discoveries” (47-49). And Chast’s drawings and photographs show some of these sorts of discoveries: I love a drawing of a sign for a deli advertising “ham & cheese warps,” and photos showing different varieties of standpipe connections. I also like the way Chast quotes from E.B. White’s Here Is New York, another lovely book about the city that I should reread one of these days.

I picked up Everywhere I Look at the library on the strength of its really lovely/well-designed cover: the author’s name in bold black sans serif, the title beneath in the same font but smaller and red, and then a color photo that spans the front, spine, and back: the author in the center, looking at us, a dog by her side, with others in the background, against a white brick wall topped by a hedge: a woman talking to a small boy, a woman with a mobile phone, a man with a bicycle, a younger woman, an older one, an older man. It’s a staged and stylized photo but also has something of the feel of life, ordinary people moving through their days, and it’s an apt image for the book, whose essays and diary entries feel polished, crafted and carefully shaped, but with vivid moments of humor and lived experience.

The book is divided into six parts, some of which are more thematically organized than others, and some of which I liked more than others. Part Four, for example, with its five pieces about crime/court cases, was not my favorite section of the book, though there were things in it I liked, particularly the descriptions of an exhibit of photos of mug shots and crime scenes at the Sydney Justice and Police Museum in “On Darkness.” I also really liked the ending of “The City at Night”: in the piece, Garner writes about the period just after Jill Meagher’s rape and murder—hearing that a suspect has been charged, the crowds at the vigil, the experience of talking to a friend at a bar about the crime and the public reaction to it. And then the piece ends with an encounter with a stranger at a train station, which starts out a little uncomfortable but turns really sweet: here’s how we live, how we have to live, with moments of trust and kindness and connection in a world in which horrible things happen.

Elsewhere in the book, I really liked “Some Furniture,” which is about moving house and settling in and learning a place, and which proceeds by way of accumulation: little bits of Garner’s own experiences and also conversations she’s had about moving with various people, all piled together into a piece that works really well. I like all the diary pieces, filled as they are with a satisfying mix of thoughts and vignettes, conversations with friends and family and strangers, things seen on television or read in books or magazines or seen or overheard while out and about: a funny handwritten sign in a public restroom, or a conversation with women on a train about the challenges of baking scones. The pieces of criticism were all good, though I might have liked them more if I’d read more of the writers or seen more of the films they were discussing. The last two pieces in the book, though, are what I liked best: “The Insults of Age” is moving and very funny, and makes me want to be a badass like Helen Garner when I am seventy-one. My very favorite thing in this book, though, has to be “In The Wings,” which is a beautiful and perfectly-crafted piece about the behind-the-scenes workings of a ballet company: Garner observes a morning class for company members, rehearsals, and a wardrobe fitting, and it’s just a sheer delight. “Everywhere I look I see a wonder,” she writes, and I’m enthralled by those wonders and how Garner captures them.

I loved Tamara Shopsin’s Mumbai New York Scranton when I read it a few years ago, so I was super-excited when I learned she had a new book out this year, and Arbitrary Stupid Goal did not disappoint. It’s an illustrated memoir that’s more a series of vignettes, but with some unifying elements; a lot of it, but not all of it, is about the NYC of Shopsin’s youth, and the cast of characters who hung out at the store her parents owned (which later became a restaurant). We get glimpses of family members and customers and neighbors, and neighbors who are practically family members (especially a man named Willy, whose presence in the book is a big part of it). We also get pieces of trips elsewhere: the time the Shopsins didn’t quite go to Dollywood, or the time that Shopsin and her husband went to a complex of old Nazi bunkers in Poland, or the time they went to Missouri and argued about locking/not locking the car doors. We get a story of a customer who taught Shopsin how to fold a napkin into the shape of a penis, and a story about the time before she was born when her parents’ store got held up and her brother asked the thief if he was a “hand robber” when he meant to say “armed robber” (which totally made me laugh out loud on the subway). I really liked the structure and style of this book, and all the life and humanity and history and community it’s got in it, the humor and tenderness and excellent stories.

(Also: this New Yorker piece about Shopsin and her book by Alexandra Schwartz is pretty great.)

More Than Two is, as its subtitle says, “a practical guide”: there’s a lot in this book about navigating particular kinds of relationship circumstances/scenarios/difficulties specific to polyamorous relationships, a lot of which didn’t feel super-applicable to me (like: being polyamorous and having kids, or coming out to your family as non-monogamous when you’ve historically been in a monogamous relationship, or being in a couple in the midst of opening up a formerly monogamous relationship, or being in a relationship where one person self-identifies as monogamous and the other person doesn’t). And Veaux and Rickert seem pretty judgmental about some things in ways that don’t really make sense to me. (The main instance of this: I understand their point that a couple looking for someone to be involved with both of them can end up being coercive, if the price for continued involvement with one of the members of the couple is continued involvement with the other, even when that isn’t what the third person ends up really wanting. But to me that doesn’t translate to it being a bad idea for a couple to look for someone to be involved with both of them, and it seems like for them, it might. I feel like the answer can be “don’t do it badly,” rather than just “don’t do it.”)

But these are pretty minor quibbles, and I appreciated a lot of the main themes of the book, which I think are applicable to building good relationships of any type. The idea, for example, that “happiness is something we re-create every day” seems like a good thing to remember about life in general: you have to show up and you have to keep showing up, and if things aren’t working you have to figure out what changes you can make to bring you towards the kind of life you want. I also liked the themes/values/ideas that Veaux and Rickert list near the start of the book, which, again, seem really broadly applicable/useful things to think about in a whole lot of contexts: trust, courage, abundance (as opposed to scarcity), ethics, and empowerment. Another highlight for me was the reminder of the concept of the “relationship escalator,” i.e. the way that society tends to assume that a successful relationship is a series of increasing predefined commitments – dating, then living together and/or marriage and maybe children – and that it can take work to not buy into this, and to get other people to recognize the worth of relationships that don’t fit this pattern—and also the related idea that there’s a continuum of relationship styles from “solo” to “entwined,” and the reminder that different relationship styles will lead to relationships that may look different, but that may still be serious, committed, etc. Also, the concept of “self-efficacy”—believing you can handle something even if something you’ve never dealt with before—seems like a good thing to think about/strive for in general, as do a lot of the principles/ideas/techniques related to boundaries, communication, and knowing your needs/working with your partner(s) to figure out how those needs can be met.

When I started reading How to Murder Your Life, Cat Marnell’s addiction memoir, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it: her style is heavy on exclamation points and felt, at first, a bit dumbed-down. But as I kept reading, I found myself liking it a whole lot: the (dark) humor and vividness of the writing won me over, and the flow improves as the book proceeds. I do a lot of my reading on my commute in the mornings and evenings, and this book was no exception, and I regularly found myself a) so engrossed I worried I’d missed my stop, and b) pretty sure that I might be making ridiculous faces as I laughed/cringed/squirmed along with Marnell’s telling of her messy drug-fuelled life.

Marnell acknowledges up front that she has a lot of privilege: the financial support of her family, from rehab to rent money, means her experience of addiction is very different from that of someone not so well-off or well-connected. But that doesn’t make her daily life, when she’s strung out on Adderall and staying up all night and then going in to work the next day, any less of a disaster. Marnell writes engagingly about her life, from childhood and adolescence (dysfunctional family, a dad who screamed at the dinner table, a sister who was sent to reform school, her own experience at boarding school) to early adulthood (interning at magazines like Nylon, working at Lucky and then at xoJane.com, doing lots of drugs, going to rehab, doing more drugs). She writes honestly about being bulimic and addicted to pills and also about her self-hatred and loneliness. I was impressed at how relatable her story felt: when I read about her procrastinating on a writing assignment and freaking out about it, I felt myself getting stressed; when I read about her going grocery shopping for foods to binge on at 4:30 am, I could feel the anticipation of that, even though my typical grocery shopping problem is, like, going to the store when I’m thirsty and coming home with three liters of seltzer and three VitaminWater Zeros and maybe a Sparkling Ice in addition to whatever food I’d meant to buy. Marnell and I are pretty much the same age and both came to NYC when we were eighteen, and it was super-interesting to read a book by someone in my demographic, age-wise, in which so much of the book feels like it takes place in this parallel city that’s adjacent to my own but largely invisible to me: I was never a staying-up-all-night club kid; the segment of publishing I’ve worked in since my early twenties is very different from the magazine industry in which she worked, et cetera.

The fact that An Arrangement of Skin has cover blurbs from Mark Doty and Maggie Nelson, both of whom I really like, probably helped convince me to check this book out from the library, even though I wasn’t actually sure I was in the mood for a book of essays. As it turns out, I was (eventually) in the mood for a book of essays, and this was an excellent choice. The fourteen essays here are largely personal in nature, with Journey recounting bits of her life and her family history, but they also pull in literature and history; there are passages talking about (and quoting) poems by Larry Levis or Thomas James or C.D. Wright, or referencing Walter Benjamin or Gaston Bachelard. (Journey herself is a poet and academic.)

Journey refers, in the first essay, to a point in her life when she “invented a ritual to stop time,” and then talks about poetry as serving the same purpose (pp 4-5). She talks about taxidermy (which she take a few classes in) as another way to do this, and also about it being a characteristic of certain places, as when she says this about Richmond, Virginia: “As soon as someone enters an alley, the wisteria-shrouded path stops time” (121). This concern with the passage of time/memory reminds me a bit of André Aciman, as does the way Journey looks at her past self and the spaces she inhabited or moved through, whether she’s talking about the horseback-riding lessons she took when her family lived in India when she was six and seven years old, or those alleyways and wisteria and porches of Richmond (where she went to college and also lived after the end of a long-term relationship).

I like the style of these essays a lot: in a few of them, like “Epithalamium with Skunk Pigs,” I really like how Journey seems to proceed via a chain of association and memory, in this way where you don’t quite know where she’s going until she gets there, though when you arrive you get the sense that it was actually all carefully mapped out. I also really love the descriptions of places in some of the pieces, especially a paragraph about the now-empty zoo in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park that appears in “A Flicker of Animal, a Flank”: it’s so great I wish I could quote it in full here, but it’s a bit long for that. Ah well: if you read this book, you’ll have it to look forward to. Meanwhile, the book’s very satisfying final essay, “Bluebeard’s Closet,” is available in its entirety on the Blackbird website: this was a really solid end to the book, but I think would serve just as well as an introduction to it.

The Surrender is Toni Bentley’s “erotic memoir” about transcendence/anal sex/submission, and despite the fact that there were things in the book that bugged me, I quite liked it overall. To start with the things that bothered me: I could have done with a lot less Freudian psychologizing, though at the same time, it feels somewhat unfair to criticize the book for its emphasis on something that is apparently a very big part of Bentley’s subjective experience of her life and sexuality. Like, even though for me the appeal of being called a “good girl” feels like it has zero relationship to anything about my childhood or parents, I can’t speak for anyone else’s feelings or experiences; while I may not be able to relate to the way Bentley connects her childhood experiences of shame or humiliation, particularly related to her relationship to her father, to her adult sexuality, I can’t disbelieve her experience of the relatedness of those things. I also feel like Bentley and I have quite different takes on gender and male/female relationships, but, again, her experiences and feelings are hers, so it’s sort of neither here nor there except to the extent that I, as a reader, want a memoir to be “relatable” in some way: I sort of do, but I also see the value in reading memoirs that come from different perspectives. That said, I was annoyed that Bentley wrote these two sentences and that her editor didn’t talk her out of them: “I reckon every woman wants a cock between her legs, ultimately. The question is: Does she want one of her own, or can she tolerate one belonging to a man?” (43). Ugh, really?

Those complaints aside, Bentley is smart and funny, and I appreciated this book’s combination of intensity and humor, and how wide-ranging it is. It includes sections about such disparate things as being an atheist who had wanted to find God/faith for a long time and crotchless underpants and the various styles thereof; it’s got sexy threesome/foursome scenes and philosophical musings about non-monogamy and stories about the experience of jealousy. At its heart, really, is a whole lot about the experience of letting go—the surrender of the title. For Bentley, that surrender comes mostly via anal sex (though not entirely: there’s a section where she writes about learning to go down on her lover in just the way he likes that also has a fair bit of surrender/submission in it). The sections about that experience of surrender and submission were probably my favorite parts of the book, and I think not just because I do find those bits relatable—there’s something so pure and intense about the way Bentley writes about the experience of letting go of her “desire to know, control, understand, and analyze”, about how that makes room for her to experience “openness and vulnerability” (7). Also, I love that Bentley writes about laughing during sex—and not like, oops-we-fell-off-the-bed laughter or oh-bodies-are-weird laughter, but a laughter that’s tied to that experience of letting go. My other favorite bits are the writerly parts—as someone who also feels the impulse to write things down, I really liked sections like this:

He presented me with the first sex I’d ever had that I thought about in words, that I wanted to describe and preserve in words. And so the scribbling began. Every time he came, and left, I went straight to my notebook and wrote it all down. I was experiencing an impossible pleasure, and having it on paper would prove that the impossible existed. (29)

I didn’t enjoy all nine chapters of Future Sex equally, but I did really enjoy this book, which is part personal narrative and part cultural commentary about sex and dating now, with a lot about what sex and dating now is like for a straight woman in her 30s. Maybe I partly liked it so much because I’m in a similar demographic to Witt, in terms of being a never-married woman in my 30s (she’s a year older than me) living in Brooklyn (though she spends a chunk of the book in San Francisco) but I don’t think that’s entirely it. I mean, yes, there were things I found relatable, but Witt’s writing is very smart, very funny, and so right on about so many things, particularly when she’s recognizing and questioning contemporary American culture’s often-gendered assumptions around sex/relationships/what people want.

One of my favorite chapters in the book is the first one, “Expectations,” where Witt writes about finding herself single and starting to question her own assumptions that she would eventually end up in a traditional monogamous long-term relationship. “The year I turned thirty a relationship ended. I was very sad but my sadness bored everyone, including me,” she writes, which made me laugh because it’s so relatable (5). She writes about sleeping with various male friends/acquaintances, including one who’s seeing someone else who apparently has expectations of monogamy, though Witt isn’t necessarily aware of this at the time; there’s a cringe-inducing and hilarious bit where she quotes from a sanctimonious email she got from one of that other woman’s friends that made me decide, six pages into this book, that I was clearly going to enjoy it a whole lot. The next chapter, “Internet Dating” (which is a thing I also have experience with, though my experiences seem to be quite different from Witt’s in some ways) was also really satisfying in the ways that it combines a history of online dating with Witt’s own attempts at it and with a critique of assumptions about women wanting relationships/monogamy and not wanting sex, as in this passage, which is too good not to quote at length:

I saw that it was taken for granted, or asserted by books of biological determinism such as Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, that the monogamous relationship made women the most happy, was where they most enjoyed sex, and that this sort of commitment brought women both freedom and security. This line of thinking forced me into a gendered role that I resented. If every expression of free sexuality by a woman would be second-guessed, it left men as the sole rational agents of sexual narrative. The woman was rarely granted the heroic role of seducer. If a woman pursued a strictly sexual experience, she was seen as succumbing to the wishes of the sovereign subject. If the sex she had with no commitments made her unhappy, it was not simply bad sex but rather proof of her delusion that it could be good. (33)

In other chapters, Witt learns about something called orgasmic meditation by attending the events of an organization called OneTaste, watches live web cams (and talks to some of the people behind them) on a website called Chaturbate, talks about polyamory (largely through the lens of three people she meets in San Francisco who tell her about their experiences with being open/poly), talks about the politics of birth control, goes to Burning Man, and explores her feelings about porn, partly by attending a shoot of Kink.com’s Public Disgrace series. The porn chapter was another highlight for me: early in it, Witt notes that porn “caused [her] friends a lot of anxiety,” and goes on to explore both her own relationship to it and larger cultural reactions, current and historical (71). (The bit about it causing her friends anxiety was surprising/interesting to me. Do I have friends who feel that way? And if not, why not? I feel like I’ve only talked about porn with straight/mostly-straight guys and gay women, which may be part of it?) Maybe my favorite moment in this essay is when Witt is interviewing the female lead performer from the Public Disgrace shoot, Penny Pax, and we get this, which just delights me so much:

Slightly incredulous, I asked if there were moments of genuine pleasure. She looked at me like I was crazy. “Yeah. Like the whole thing! The whole thing.” (84)

There is more good stuff about this book I want to talk about, like sex and capitalism, or how funny some of the descriptions of various scenes/people are, but really, all I can say is, this book was great. I initially heard about it via Alexandra Schwartz’s (also great) New Yorker piece about it, and am glad I eventually got around to reading the book itself and not just reading about it.

Like my last read (Ali Smith’s Autumn), The Outrun by Amy Liptrot was a book I first heard about before it had been published in the US, first via this post over at Tales from the Reading Room and then again from a friend on Goodreads who wrote about how much he loved it. As with Autumn, I snapped this book up when I saw it at the library, and am glad I did.

The Outrun, the book, is Amy Liptrot’s memoir about alcoholism and recovery, about being from the Orkneys and living in London and going back to the Orkneys and finding things out about nature and herself and what she wants her life to be like, and at first I wasn’t totally sure I was going to like it. I’m not sure if it was the book or my mood, but I found the scene-setting of the beginning, where we learn about Liptrot and her family (her father has bipolar disorder; she has a younger brother; her mother became a born-again Christian; her parents got divorced; Liptrot herself was living in London and drinking way too much and having seizures and losing flats and jobs and relationships) felt a bit disjointed to me. But the beauty and energy of some sentences or descriptions or paragraphs carried me along, and once I reached the point in the book where Liptrot goes back to the Orkneys after completing a non-residential rehab program, I found myself totally won over. I was delighted by so many of Liptrot’s descriptions of her sober island life, whether she’s talking about rebuilding stone walls or watching clouds or going to an island uninhabited since 1958 and seeing an old farmhouse there, whether in passages about listening for corncrakes at night as a summer job, or about her time wintering on the small island of Papa Westray (Papay), where she goes on an 11-mile circumambulation of the island with the Papay Walking Committee one December day, despite the sun setting at 3:20 pm, despite cold and hail. I also loved reading about Liptrot’s solo Papay swims, with bits like this paragraph:

There are things about the sea you find out only by being in it. The waves carry stones, large pebbles suspended in the water, thrown around effortlessly. I watch, from a seal’s-eye perspective, a gull descend and land on the water. It seems not to have noticed me. One morning, the sky is reflected in the flat water and I’m swimming in the clouds. (197)

The Outrun, the place, is a general term for “the furthest reaches of a farm, only semi-tamed, where domestic and wild animals co-exist,” a place where “humans don’t often visit so spirit people are free to roam” (2). It’s also the name of the biggest field on the sheep farm where Liptrot grew up. In both the general and the specific it’s a space at the edge of the farm: in Liptrot’s case, it’s at the edge of the farm and the edge of cliffs and sea. It’s a place and mood that Liptrot clearly feels a kinship with, in the way it’s partly wild, in the way it’s windswept, in the way that daily domestic life doesn’t have a full hold on it. Liptrot writes, too, about the wildness of drinking, and the appeal of that, calling her drinking life “rough and windy and tangled” (20). Later, when she’s working with the structure of AA’s twelve steps despite her atheism, dislike of religion, and skepticism about the program, the wildness and bigness of nature is the closest thing she can find to a higher power, and a lot of the book is about how being in nature and learning about the natural world helped her recovery. One of the most appealing things about the book, for me, is the way Liptrot explores this ongoing appeal of wildness and edges, the way she writes about trying to figure out how to have room for those things in her sober life, in a way that’s healthy rather than destructive.