Non-Fiction

  • Life in Code

    Ellen Ullman

    After reading Ellen Ullman’s novel By Blood, I’ve been meaning to get to her memoir Close to the Machine, but before I could get around to that, she published another book centered around her experiences as a programmer, from before and during the early years of the internet. These essays were written from that inchoate era of the 1990s to today and build on each other excellently. Ullman has both a personal and critical perspective on how technology has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, at least for those of us with access to the internet.

    In “Programming for the Millions,” she digs into this question of accessibility, not just to get on the internet, but to understand...more

  • The Chronology of Water

    Lidia Yuknavitch

    I thought I would love this, based on recommendations. But I did have one friend say she wasn’t as entranced as she expected, and I found my reaction much the same. A memoir told in vignettes that roughly progresses chronologically, Lidia Yuknavitch grew up in an abusive, neglectful household, and her one escape was swimming. At the end of high school, she pursues a scholarship in hopes of escape, yet despite her success in securing her independence, she struggles with addiction and self-destructive habits for many years.

    There are some really hard parts to read in this, most especially the one where Yuknavitch writes of causing a head-on car collision with someone she describes as “a 5′ tall brown skinned...more

  • Devotion

    Patti Smith

    Compared to Just Kids or M Train, this little book feels so slight and incomplete. But as a small continuation of the themes of creation and artistic drive, it’s a pleasure. Devotion is an expansion of a talk she gave at the 2016 Windham-Campbell Lectures, published as part of the Why I Write series.

    I could probably read about Patti Smith’s travels to artists’ homes and grave sites for a thousand pages. Here she takes a spontaneous trip to Simone Weil’s grave and later accepts an invitation to visit Camus’s house in the south of France, the latter of which prompts her to question:

    Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the

    ...more
  • I’ll Never Write My Memoirs

    Grace Jones

    As celebrity memoirs go, this one is fully par for the course. Rock writer Paul Morley has shaped Grace Jones’s life stories into somewhat of a narrative, but it still has a tendency to ramble back and forth over time, likely from hours and hours of conversation that did just that. Her stories are fascinating, no doubt, even more so if you have any interest in the Studio 54 era and reading about people doing tons of drugs.

    The book opens with Jones’ troubled upbringing, she and her siblings are left with their grandmother and their abusive, strictly religious step-grandfather in Jamaica while their parents move to the US to establish themselves before bringing their children over, having no...more

  • We Gon’ Be Alright

    Jeff Chang

    Essays on race arguing that inequality impacts everyone. Jeff Chang whittles big concepts down into a manageable book — it’s a petite volume, but I marked it up a lot. I’m gonna be lazy and just share a bunch of excerpts here since I took so long to get around to writing something up, and his words are more succinct than mine would be.

    In “Is Diversity for White People?” Chang questions who the notion of diversity serves, at one point stating:

    Diversity allows whites to remove themselves while requiring the Other to continue performing for them.

    “What a Time to be Alive” is about student protest, where he quotes from Mari Matsuda before digging into some ideas on resegregation:

    “Tolerance of hate speech

    ...more
  • Too Much and Not the Mood

    Durga Chew-Bose

    The title of this book comes from an entry in Virginia Woolf’s diary, where she wrote about being tired of the “cramming in and cutting out” to please readers. I wanted to really love this book, expected it even, from the context of the title and the blurb that references Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Lydia Davis’s short stories, and Vivian Gornick’s “exploration of interior life.” So I built up its possible impact too much, and then the first essay “Heart Museum,” which takes up almost half of the small volume, was a slog that I struggled to get through, even though I was on vacation and had no distractions to keep me from getting enmeshed. While I generally am all for...more

  • Freedom is a Constant Struggle

    Angela Y. Davis

    This slim collection of interviews and speeches covers some similar ideas in different contexts, and while I had a little wish that these had been reworked into one super essay, it’s also no big deal to revisit comparable concepts a few times when they are so significant. Plus it’s fascinating to get a sense of how Angela Davis structures a talk. A preeminent scholar, activist, and general bad-ass person, the connections she makes between the protests in Ferguson in 2014 (and on) with the ongoing fight of the Palestinian people are crucial. It’s not just that the systems of oppression are alike, but that the militarism of the police forces in the US overall is directly tied to the...more

  • 300 Arguments

    Sarah Manguso

    The premise of this slim offering is contained in one of the 300 snippets: “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages.” While I definitely found some quotable moments in the quotable passages (which is kind of funny!), it didn’t really work for me as a book; it just didn’t feel crafted. Some of the “arguments” are funny or sardonic, some feel rather profound, while others strike me as throwaways. The trouble is the ones that do sound like a long book’s quotable passages just beg for the rest of the book, and the rest are fragments for the sake of the premise.

    This one suggests it was...more

  • Hope in the Dark

    Rebecca Solnit

    Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, a alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what is may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.

    ...more
  • The Selfishness of Others

    Kristin Dombek

    My friend Athena wrote a review of this essay on “the fear of narcissism” that suggested the writing fell a bit flat to her at the end. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I wound up feeling almost exactly the same way. A brief history of clinical and cultural understandings of narcissism, with sections focused around concepts like The Bad Boyfriend, The Millennial, The Murderer; the turning point is The Artist, where the focus shifts to Dombek’s self-reflection. As Athena said, it was perhaps intended as “some kind of experimental practice of writing as a selfish/other-centric dialectic,” but I was disappointed that everything built up to be so personal, self-centered. But it’s appropriate within the essay’s lens of...more

Pages