I like Italo Calvino’s fiction a lot, and I’m glad I read this book of essays, but I’m definitely not this book’s ideal reader: it’s a mix of big-picture literary/philosophical/political thought and close literary analysis of works/authors I’m (mostly) not that familiar with (e.g. Orlando Furioso or The Betrothed or anything by Charles Fourier). That said, I like Calvino’s style a lot, and I appreciate how, throughout the book, he talks about the subversive or expansive potential of literature, the way it can let us see other possibilities/other ways of being, the way it can show us that the way things are now is not the only way for things to be.

As far as specific essays go, the high point of the book for me is “Why Read the Classics?”, which is just such a delight. I like how Calvino says we all have to “invent our own ideal libraries of classics”, and how we should read them for pleasure rather than out of obligation—sticking with the ones with which we feel a “personal rapport” (133, 129). I also really liked “Levels of Reality in Literature,” which is a deconstruction of the sentence “I write that Homer tells that Ulysses says: I have listened to the song of the Sirens” (107) and an examination of the possibilities of metafiction and narrative twistiness and stories within stories. “The City as Protagonist in Balzac” makes me want to read Balzac, and “Guide to The Charterhouse of Parma for the Use of New Readers” makes me want to read Stendhal. “Man, the Sky, and the Elephant” doesn’t particularly make me want to read Pliny the Elder, but I do like how many bits of the Natural History this piece quotes, and how Calvino talks about Pliny’s “admiration for everything that exists” (316).

The Lonely City (whose subtitle is “Adventures in the Art of Being Alone”) is a blend of the personal and the art-historical, though a bit heavier on the latter. Laing writes about how she had been planning to move to New York City from England to be with a man who then changed his mind; she ended up living in the city on her own, moving from one sublet to another, finding comfort in visual art and music as she went through a period where she was “inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis” (5). The works of art in which she found solace “seemed to articulate or be troubled by loneliness” themselves, and the book is an exploration of that art/those artists/their lives and stories (ibid.).

Most of the book’s chapters focus on a particular artist: there’s one about Edward Hopper, another about Andy Warhol, one about David Wojnarowicz, another about Henry Darger, another about Klaus Nomi. (I liked all these chapters, especially the one about Wojnarowicz.) There’s also an introductory chapter, a concluding chapter that talks a bit about Zoe Leonard’s “Strange Fruit” and Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, and a chapter about loneliness and the internet that discusses the work of Josh Harris, an internet entrepreneur who ran a live-streaming project called Quiet in which sixty people lived together for a month in a basement pod hotel. (I found the internet/Josh Harris chapter the weakest, though I liked the bits in it about Laing’s fondness for Craigslist and experiences placing ads on it.)

While I found Laing’s discussions of specific artworks and the lives of artists interesting, and while I also liked her discussions of the larger culture in which these artists were working, my favorite parts of the book were probably the pieces we see of Laing’s own story, whether she’s talking about living in a room on 43rd Street and 8th Avenue and waking to the lights of the city in the middle of the night, or about ordering coffee in the East Village and how when you’re lonely, social interactions with strangers or near-strangers are much more fraught. And I love how Laing writes about her experience of New York City, in sentences like this: “It was winter now, the sky bright blue, buckets of copper-colored chrysanthemums outside the bodegas” (110). Or this: “In the absence of love, I found myself clinging hopelessly to the city itself: the repeating tapestry of psychics and bodegas, the bump and grind of traffic, the live lobsters on the corner of Ninth Avenue, the steam drifting up from beneath the streets” (12-13).

I haven’t watched The Office or The Mindy Project, and I don’t read many celebrity memoirs in general, but I found a copy of this book somewhere at some point (a Little Free Library? a giveaway pile at work? I don’t even remember) and thought it might be a good fun/light read. Which it was, although I’m probably not its ideal audience—there were a lot of pop culture references I didn’t get without Googling them. The thirty-seven pieces in the book are arranged somewhat chronologically, somewhat thematically, and range in length from very short (e.g. a one-page piece whose title is “Why Do Men Put On Their Shoes So Slowly?”) to somewhat longer (the longest piece, about The Office, is twenty pages). Some of the shorter pieces fell flat for me, but even not having watched The Office, I liked the section about it a whole lot (and even paused in my reading of that section to watch the pilot episode, which I liked: I’ll probably catch up on more of the show at some point).

In general, I found the pieces about Kaling’s working life to be the strongest: it felt like she had interesting things to say about being a writer/working in Hollywood/how she got to where she was when she was writing this book, and those pieces tended to be a little longer, which I liked: it felt like there was more room in them for humor and good writing and good narrative flow. In addition to the piece about The Office, I really liked “Failing at Everything in the Greatest City on Earth,” “Day Jobs,” and “Matt & Ben & Mindy & Brenda,” all of which are about Kaling’s pre-Office work/artistic life, and which are also full of really great details about life in NYC in the early 2000s. Kaling is a few years older than me, but I’m close enough to her age that passages like this felt pretty relatable, even though my NYC experience at this time was that of a college student rather than a college grad:

It was October 2001 and I lived in New York City. I was twenty-two. I, like many of my female friends, suffered from a strange combination of post-9/11 anxiety and height-of-Sex-and-the-City anxiety. They are distinct and unnerving anxieties. The questions that ran through my mind went something like this:

Should I keep a gas mask in my kitchen? Am I supposed to be able to afford Manolo Blahnik shoes? What is Barneys New York? You’re trying to tell me a place called “Barneys” is fancy? Where are the fabulous gay friends I was promised? Gay guys hate me! Is this anthrax or powdered sugar? Help! Help! (66)

Other highlights for me included the title piece (which is about growing apart from childhood friends in high school/bonding with a new friend about shared interests) and a list piece called “Non-Traumatic Things That Have Made Me Cry” (which includes Paul Simon’s Graceland, a line said by Colin Firth’s character in Bridget Jones’s Diary, and the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, among other things).

The ten essays in this book range in subject/tone from funny to serious, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up: I had read one of the funny ones and somehow thought the whole book would be like that, which it isn’t. Not that that’s a bad thing: I like Koul’s style, whether she’s writing about the problem-drinking of a close friend at university or getting stuck in a skirt in a dressing room. A lot of this book has to do with family: Koul’s parents emigrated from India to Canada before she was born, and she writes about their family history and their worries and expectations and quirks, and about the tensions and good parts of her relationship with them. Koul also writes about race and racism and privilege (including her own privilege as a lighter-skinned person of color); the parts of the book where she writes about going to a cousin’s wedding in India were really interesting in the way they melded humor and seriousness, travelogue and social commentary.

After I dislocated my elbow in January, when I read the message from my doctor’s office that said the MRI showed a torn ligament, a torn tendon, and a fracture, my first reaction was a giant mental “ugh,” except with more swear words. My second reaction was to put on the song “Dig Me Out” by Sleater-Kinney, the volume turned up loud. Dig Me Out was the first Sleater-Kinney album I heard (I was in high school when it came out), and that title track is apparently still my first choice for a song to hear when I’m upset, when I want to get lost in something loud. Carrie Brownstein writes about that song in Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, how her guitar riff starts off “fast and careening, a skid into a crash,”; how her bandmate Corin Tucker’s vocals are “desperate and angry,” how the melody is “on the brink of oblivion, frenzied yet resolute” (124). Brownstein also writes about her own musical experiences as a fan, about “why all those records from high school sound so good. It’s not that the songs were better—it’s that we were listening to them with our friends, drunk for the first time on liqueurs, touching sweaty palms, staring for hours at a poster on the wall, not grossed out by carpet or dirt or crumpled, oily bedsheets. These songs and albums were the best ones because of how huge adolescence felt then, and how nostalgia recasts it now” (3). I don’t know: some albums I listened to in high school haven’t aged particularly well, and I think there’s more than nostalgia in some of the ones that still sound great, though yes, there’s nostalgia and familiarity too, in the way it feels to hear a song you first heard and loved decades ago. All of which is to say, I really like Sleater-Kinney, and have been meaning to read this book since it came out in 2015, and I’m not sure what took me so long.

There are lots of fun things about this book, which is mostly but not entirely chronological, and largely but not entirely focused on Brownstein’s time with Sleater-Kinney between 1994 and 2006. After an opening section about Brownstein’s youth, where we learn about the challenges of her early family life, her love of performing, and how she started being in bands, we get chapters about each Sleater-Kinney album through The Woods, with bits about writing the songs, making the albums, and touring. I sometimes wanted the structure to be a bit tighter—there’s a chapter about having opening bands/being an opening band that was interesting but didn’t feel like it was integral to the narrative flow—but the overall reading experience was satisfying to me. I liked reading about how Brownstein approaches/feels about music, like when she writes this: “so much of my intention with songs is to voice a continual dissatisfaction, or at least to claw my way out of it” (51). I liked reading about how Brownstein listened to Bikini Kill and Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, how she met Corin Tucker by introducing herself after a Heavens to Betsy show; I liked reading about the music scenes in Seattle and Olympia and Portland. I liked reading about the challenges and rewards of making music, of touring and recording. And I liked reading about specific albums, thinking about specific songs. I also appreciated Brownstein’s self-aware and sometimes lyrical writing style, like in this passage, where she’s talking about home/family:

I realized that after wanting to celebrate Christmas for so long, it wasn’t about having a tree, it was about having a box in the basement or attic or garage, something that we could return to over and over again, something that said, this is us and this is where we were last year, and this is where we’ll stay, and this is where we’ll pile on the memories, over and over again, until there are so many memories that it’s blinding, the brightness of family, the way love and nurturing is like a color you can’t name because it’s so new. (46)

This short book (it’s only sixty pages) consists of three biographical essays about writers: there’s one about Thomas De Quincey, one about John Keats, and one about Marcel Schwob. I was somewhat familiar with Keats before reading this, a bit less familiar with De Quincey (or TDQ, as he’s referred to in the book), and not at all familiar with Schwob, and I’m curious as to how these pieces would read to someone more familiar with these figures than I was. These essays trace their subjects’ lives from childhood to literary career to death, and in each piece, there’s a sense of the writer as devoted to literature. Jaeggy describes Schwob, for example, as someone whose “head was stuffed with names, words, and legends” (52). Or there’s this, about Keats when he decided to be a writer instead of practicing medicine: “He devoured books, he copied, translated sections, he became the scribe and secretary to his mind” (31). Jaeggy isn’t only writing about these men, though, but about the times and places in which they lived: I love the start of the Keats essay, which you can read in full on the New York Review of Books website. My favorite piece, though, was the one about De Quincey, maybe for its wintry mood, which made a pleasant contrast to summer in New York. I like atmospheric lines like this: “From the first week in November until the end of January he pleaded with the sky: he wanted more snow, more ice, more storms and frost” (10). Or this: “Cloaked in a driver’s mantle, some legal papers, and frost, Thomas surprised his shoes and went skating down the street” (15). Though this book is not a novel, it made me think of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First: I feel like people who enjoyed that book would like this one, and vice versa, because they both explore historical writerly figures in stylistically interesting ways.

I’d read some of the twenty-one pieces in Calypso before, since some of them appeared in The New Yorker, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this book at all: I feel like a David Sedaris essay generally stands up to a re-read. A back cover blurb from Marion Winik at Newsday captures the appeal perfectly: “His personal essays,” Winik writes, “are put together so carefully that none of the seams show; they often ingeniously build to a sneak attack of wisdom or poignancy in the final lines.” These pieces are about family and loss and middle-age and mortality and being a flawed human interacting with other flawed humans, and they manage to be funny and moving and totally engaging: my boyfriend and I were reading this book at the same time, and we both kept commenting on what a pleasure it was.

In this book, Sedaris writes about family clashes and connections and missed opportunities: about worrying he’ll get on his family’s nerves when they visit him and his partner in England, or arguing with his dad about politics, or shopping with two of his sisters in Tokyo, or the last time he saw his sister Tiffany (who later committed suicide), or how none of his siblings ever confronted their mother about her alcoholism. He writes about the differences between his partner’s family and his own, and about easy beach-house conversation during board games, or while lounging in the sun. He writes about how his father is (mostly) easier to get along with in his old age than he was earlier in his life, and about how it feels like they don’t really know how to talk to one another, though they bond over jazz. He writes about personal experiences ranging from an adventure in tumor removal to his obsession with his Fitbit (the Fitbit piece, “Stepping Out,” is totally one of my favorites in the book), and about what business travel in the US is like, and about a fox that had been visiting his backyard in West Sussex. He writes about same-sex marriage, and about ghosts, and about insults people use in other countries. Throughout, I found myself grinning and laughing and nodding in recognition: I read this book over the course of four days and kept looking forward to when I’d be able to pick it up next.

I found some of the fourteen essays in this collection more compelling than others, but, overall, I like Chew-Bose’s voice and the way she writes about memory/family/personal history and larger issues like race and the experience of being a first-generation North American. I liked “Summer Pictures,” about going to the movies in the summertime, a whole bunch – how Chew-Bose writes about the “sense of ceremony” that an excursion to the theater brings, and how sitting in the cool dark in the summer heat feels like “playing hooky,” “pretending that adulthood is no match for summer’s precedent” of freedom (189, 191). I liked “Tan Lines,” about summer heat and family stories and Chew-Bose’s childhood summer awareness of her body, her brown-skinned body in a largely-white place, and also the way Chew-Bose writes in this piece about summers now, about moments sitting on rooftops in New York City, trying to read, feeling “indebted to the car passing below blasting that song” (183). I liked “Since Living Alone,” in which Chew-Bose writes about figuring out who she is in her own space, by herself, not defined in relation to others: this, from that piece, is great:

I count living alone as, in a manner of speaking, finding interest in my own story, of prospering, of creating a space where I repeat the same actions every day, whetting them, rearranging them, starting from scratch but with variables I can control, or, conversely, eagerly appeal to their chaos. (173)

I also really liked “D as In,” about having a non-Anglo name in a mostly-Anglo place, and about considerations of privilege related to race and to names, and “Moby-Dick,” about reading in the library and the way moments from books can line up, pleasingly, with the outer world. And I liked the meandering/digressive structure of the long first piece, “Heart Museum,” which is about the heart and life and wonder and everyday ordinariness and families and how art affects us and friendship and heartbreak and sense memories and more.

The eight essays in Draft No. 4 were all originally published in The New Yorker (albeit in slightly different form), so I think I’ve read them all before. I remembered some of them more vividly than others, though, and they were all satisfying to read in book form. They’re all, as the book’s subtitle puts it, essays “on the writing process,” and many refer heavily to McPhee’s other work, which I found pretty fun: I liked being reminded of stuff of his that I’ve read and liked (like Oranges) and I also enjoyed being reminded of stuff of his I haven’t read yet but would like to (like Uncommon Carriers).

McPhee writes narrative nonfiction/creative nonfiction, and has taught a course on it at Princeton for decades, and these essays are full of his thoughts and advice on various aspects of doing that kind of writing. In “Progression” he writes about how one piece can lead, unexpectedly, to another, using the example of how a double profile of two tennis players ended up leading to his book Encounters with the Archdruid, which in turn led to other pieces. He writes about chronological vs. thematic organization, and the uses of outlining, in “Structure,” which also includes a great digression on his compositional methods over the years, from a typewriter and scissors to custom-built macros for a text-editing program. (There’s also a great bit where he talks about visiting the creator of that text-editing program.) He writes about the various interactions he’s had as part of the magazine work he’s done, from New Yorker editors and fact-checkers he’s worked with to interview subjects he’s had. There’s a great piece about frames of reference, a piece about writers’ block and the revision process and finding one’s style, and a really pleasing final piece about selection and omission in writing, which ends with a perfect story of an encounter McPhee had with Eisenhower in 1950.

McPhee is really good at a lot of things, including beginnings and endings, and I loved the way so many of these pieces started or finished, from that Eisenhower story to the image of a backyard in summertime with a picnic table and an ash tree to a story about McPhee watching a movie about quarter horses (which was based on a piece he’d written) that concludes with the image of him “on the floor groping under the seat for nickels, dimes, and pennies” that had fallen from his pocket (16). I also was totally charmed by two moments of McPhee in the classroom: in one piece, he visits his granddaughter’s English class (she’s a senior in high school at the time) to check the frames of reference in a piece he’s written: he reproduces the list of things he asked about, with the number of students who knew what each was. And in another piece, he talks about his experience of cutting lines from his work when he was a writer for Time magazine, and then about assigning this same task to his students, telling them to use both their own work and specific famous texts.

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.