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).

My reading experience of How to be both felt slower and more scattered than I would like—I started it while getting ready to move, and finished it after moving, and there was a lot of packing and unpacking boxes and generally being stressed in between—but it’s Ali Smith, and I pretty much always think she’s great. This is a dual-narrative novel in which the two sections can be read in either order, and the book was printed so that some copies have one section first, while others start with the other section. Mine started with the “camera” section, which focuses on George (short for Georgia), who’s an English teenager whose mother unexpectedly died a few months before the story starts. George remembers a trip she took to Italy with her mother and brother, and remembers, in particular, the frescoes they saw at Palazzo Schifanoia. (A detail from one of the scenes in the fresco is what prompted the trip to begin with.) We see George’s daily life: her experience of loss and grief, the way she thinks about her mother, her relationship with her father and brother, conversations she has with a school counsellor, and her relationship with a girl from school, H (short for Helena). Then comes the “eyes” section, which is narrated by the ghost/spirit of Francesco del Cossa, the artist who made those frescoes George and her mom saw. del Cossa is unexpectedly conscious, and in England (and watching George, in fact—they’re somehow tied together). We get del Cossa’s memories of working as a painter and living in Italy in the 1400s and also del Cossa’s observations of England, and of George.

I like the bothness of this book a lot, the way it looks at past and present, art and life, death and life, grief and love, and other dualities besides, and I like how it’s full of Ali Smith’s usual combination of playfulness and empathy and grace and intelligence. I’m glad I read the “camera” section of the book first: it’s more of a straightforward narrative, and while I probably liked the “eyes” section more, I might have felt adrift if I’d opened the book to it, and I like the way that the start of the “camera” section raises questions that are very relevant to the “eyes” section. (George and her mother in the car in Italy have this conversation, where George’s mom is telling her to imagine a hypothetical situation where George is an artist asking for more money: “Is it happening now or in the past? George says. Is the artist a woman or a man?” and then: “Past or present? George says. Male or female? It can’t be both. It must be one or the other. Who says? Why must it? her mother says” (9).) I also like the way this book explores different aspects of paintings, and of stories, and of what art does/how art works.

This book, which was originally published in Japan in 1988, contains two pieces, a novella and a story, or a novella and a shorter novella. “Kitchen”, the first piece, is the longer of the two; “Moonlight Shadow” is shorter. They’re both about love and loss and grief and loneliness and hope and connection, and I think when I first picked this book up, I read through both pieces too quickly and didn’t fully appreciate them. On a reread, I paid more attention to the things I liked about them, especially the things I liked about “Kitchen,” and enjoyed the book as a whole more.

“Kitchen” is narrated by Mikage, who was raised by her grandparents after her parents both died young. Her grandfather died when she was about to start junior high; when the book opens she’s been going to university, but has been taking time off after her grandmother’s death. Her life becomes intertwined with that of a boy named Yuichi who’s a year younger and works at a flower shop her grandmother used to frequent; after Mikage’s grandmother’s death, Mikage ends up going to live with Yuichi and his mother, Eriko, for a time, then moves out, then reconnects with Yuichi after he experiences a loss of his own. A lot of the book is about the distance between people, and how that distance is magnified by grief, and also about the tension between the inner world and the outer one in general: there are lots of passages where Mikage is looking out a window, and that sense of the self being separated from the rest of the world by more than just glass keeps recurring. And then there’s the kitchen, the room of the book’s title: it’s Mikage’s favorite place, and it’s a place of warmth and comfort and food and the possibility of connection. Mikage finds herself feeling heartened by just the sounds and steam from a kitchen she passes on her way home on a night when she’s feeling sad and adrift; she and Yuichi bond, when they reconnect, after she cooks him an elaborate meal.

A lot of the passages about looking out windows are really pleasing to me, like this, when Mikage is looking out the window on her first night at Yuichi and Eriko’s apartment: “Suspended in the dim light before the window overlooking the magnificent tenth-floor view, the plants breathed softly, resting. By now the rain had stopped, and the atmosphere, sparkling, replete with moisture, refracted the glittering light splendidly” (16).

Or this: “The sky outside was a dull gray. Waves of clouds were being pushed around by the wind with amazing force. In this world there is no place for sadness. No place, not one” (23).

Or this: “I watched the rows of windows in the tall building across the street from the bus stop, suspended, emitting a pretty blue light. The people moving behind those windows, the elevators going up and down, all of it, sparkling silently, seemed to melt into the half-darkness” (33).

“Moonlight Shadow” is about love and loss and hope, too: the narrator, Satsuki, talks about how she’s recently taken up jogging as a way to cope with the sudden death of her boyfriend, Hitoshi, who was only twenty. The same accident that took his life also killed his younger brother Hiiragi’s girlfriend; we see the ways Hiiragi grieves and tries to cope, too. While jogging one morning, Satsuki meets a girl who’s around her own age, or a little older; the girl startles her and Satsuki drops her thermos off the bridge that she runs to every day, which separates her neighborhood from Hitoshi’s. The girl, Urara, tells Satsuki about a mysterious event she might be able to see at the bridge in a few days’ time. Urara, and that mysterious event, end up bringing a sense of closure and hope to Satsuki, and maybe to Hiiragi too. It’s a pleasing little piece, though overall I think I liked the length and descriptiveness of “Kitchen” more.

I read an excerpt from There There in the New Yorker several months ago, and I liked it a lot, but one thing that wasn’t apparent from the excerpt was the way the book is structured—which, luckily, I also liked a lot. There There keeps shifting perspectives, with different chapters focusing on different characters. Some of those chapters are in narrated in the first person; most are in the third; all focus on Native American characters whose lives intertwine in various ways. A lot of the characters live in Oakland, and in the first chapter we learn about an upcoming powwow that’s going to be held there, and about a plan to rob that powwow. So there’s tension built into the narrative: you’re reading to learn more about each character’s story and about how the characters are connected to one another (some are related, some work together, some just cross paths in the course of the powwow being planned and organized) but also to find out what exactly is going to happen at the powwow itself. There’s also a prologue and an interlude, both of which add context and background and moments of Native American history: King Philip’s war, massacres of villages of Pequot people perpetrated by colonists in the 1600s, the 1864 Sand Creek massacre of a village of Cheyenne and Arapaho people.

There There is about family and memory and history and identity, and I like how the different characters have different relationships to the idea of being Native American: one point the book makes is that there is no single way of being Native, just like there’s no single way of being anything else.

Sing, Unburied, Sing opens on a boy named Jojo’s 13th birthday, which is also the day his mom gets a phone call from his dad to say he’s getting out of Parchman, the penitentiary where he’s been for the past three years. It’s a book about transitions (between childhood and adulthood, between life and death, between freedom and incarceration and vice versa) and family and memory and stories and history, and what we can and can’t do to protect people from the world, and it’s really well-written and sad and beautiful and there was a scene near the end that totally had me sitting on my couch in tears. The chapters are all narrated in the first person, mostly by Jojo and Leonie, though there are a few chapters narrated by another character, Richie. (I guess I’ll be vague about Richie and how he fits into the story, though the flap copy of the book isn’t.) The first-person narration really worked for me: I loved Jojo’s character/voice, but also liked that the book included Leonie’s perspective: she’s not a great parent to Jojo and his little sister Kayla, but it’s good to see some of her awareness of that, to see some of how she feels about that. (And it’s not like she’s in the easiest situation: she’s a Black woman in a relationship with a White man whose family won’t acknowledge her or her children; she had an older brother who died violently; she got pregnant young; her partner is/has been incarcerated.) I like how the action of this book takes place over the course of just a few days, even as we get a lot of backstory; I like the way this book combines a really tight focus on a few characters with a much bigger sense of family and history and the passage of time. And I like the lyricism of Ward’s style, like when Jojo describes the landscape he sees from a car window like this: “I like the heat. I like the way the highway cuts through the forests, curves over hills heading north, sure and rolling. I like the trees reaching out on both sides, the pines thicker and taller up here, spared the stormy beating the ones on the coast get that keeps them spindly and delicate” (63).

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)

When I picked up Starlings I thought it was a collection of short stories, but it isn’t, not quite. For one thing, it also includes poems and a short play. And as Walton puts it in her introduction, the short fiction here is itself varied: there are short stories but also “extended jokes,” exercises/experiments, first chapters of unwritten books, and “some poems with the line breaks taken out” (20). The pieces vary in length and in style: there are some very short pieces (like those aforementioned extended jokes), and some longer ones; there are pieces with a fantasy/fairy tale feel, and pieces that are set in space, or that are about artificial intelligence. (There’s even a noir/hard-boiled detective story.) While I liked some pieces more than others, I had a whole lot of fun with the book as a whole. I liked the shifts in setting and tone and narrative style, and even though I don’t tend to read very many stories set in space, the ones in this book were pretty enjoyable. My favorite piece in the book, though, was probably the first one, “Three Twilight Tales,” which is gorgeous and full of magic and possibilities, and which is itself very much concerned with the shape of stories and the power of stories. Other highlights for me were “Jane Austen to Cassandra”, which is fun and funny, and The Panda Coin, whose structure I like a lot. And because I’d previously read Walton’s Small Change trilogy, I was glad to read “Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction” (though it feels weird to say I was glad to read something so dark).

In Dragon’s Green, the first book in her Worldquake middle-grade fantasy sequence, Scarlett Thomas introduced us to Effie Truelove, a young True Hero just discovering her magical abilities, and to her also-magical friends/classmates (Lexy, Maximilian, Raven, and Wolf), and to the shape of the world in which they live, where a lot of magical power is bound up with books and stories. In The Chosen Ones, the second book of the series, we get to see Effie learn more about herself and magic, and we also get to see her friends getting themselves and each other in and out of peril. There’s a whole lot of plot, but the short version is that evil publisher Skylurian Midzhar is planning to use some bookish magic to give herself and her fellow villains a whole lot of power; it’s up to Effie and her friends to foil that plan.

The Chosen Ones, like Dragon’s Green, is smart and lots of fun: Thomas is an English professor, and it shows: there’s one part where Effie and her friends are given a close-reading assignment as homework, and a great moment where Skylurian explains that she and her colleagues “at the Matchstick Press have always been subscribers to the theory of the Death of the Author” (350). Which isn’t to say that the only delights of The Chosen Ones are the bookish moments: the mix of moments of action and moments of reflection really worked for me, as did the way the story shifts between Effie and others (mostly Maximilian, who goes on a few adventures of his own, and Raven, whose ability to communicate with animals gives her some early knowledge of crucial plot points). I also liked the mix of magic and other things: Effie isn’t just learning about saving the universe, but also about friendship and sadness and how to take care of herself and how to let others help her when she needs it, too.