Non-Fiction

  • The Warmth of Other Suns

    Isabel Wilkerson

    Image of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

    Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the migration of African Americans out of the South is appropriately epic considering it spans the greater part of the 20th century (from 1910–1970). She interviewed over 1,200 people and spent fifteen years researching and writing this book that is part oral history, part narrative non-fiction focusing on three migrant’s experiences in detail (basically each person’s entire life story), and the rest historical contextualization of it all. Aside from some research done by sociologists in the 1920s on those who landed in Chicago, this phenomenon has been largely unstudied with such depth and historical scope.

    I won’t attempt to summarize the entire book, but there were two moments from Wilkerson’s contextualizing that stuck in my...more

  • The Odd Woman and the City

    Vivian Gornick

    Image of The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

    I picked up a dog-eared copy of this book from the library, which came in handy, as I didn’t have to feel too bad about refolding corners down on the existing creases as I made my way through it. A memoir of New York City and walking and relationships, both romantic and platonic, Gornick meanders through the divide between the fantasies of our lives and their actualities through vignettes of experiences of those themes, quotes from writers, as well as overheard conversations. She takes a lot of walks with her friend Leonard, referring to she and him together as “a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives, meeting up from time to time at the outer...more

  • Between the World and Me

    Ta-Nehisi Coates

    Image of Between the World and Me

    Ta-Nehisi Coates has contributed some of the more tendentious analysis on African-American identity and history in the US, including his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations.” This book came about after he reread James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which includes, in part, an open letter from Baldwin to his nephew.

    Between the World and Me is written in a similar style, but as a letter from Coates to his teenage son in which he speaks frankly about the plight of being black in America, including stories of his West Baltimore upbringing and the idealism of his college years at Howard University. Despite dips into history and memoir, the book is rooted firmly in current moments....more

  • Speaking and Language

    Paul Goodman

    Image of Speaking and Language: Defence of Poetry

    I can’t remember how this book arrived on my to-read list, but I went through the trouble of tracking down a used copy, so it must have been a convincing recommendation.

    The “Defense of Poetry” subtitle is largely a tease — a reference to other works with similar titles that Goodman was apparently thinking about when he wrote this. Most of the book is about linguistics and speech, and it’s not uninteresting, but I still struggled to get immersed in the ideas presented. Eventually he proceeds to looking at language in literature (not just poetry), and I found a little more to latch on to there, but only in disparate pieces. Strangely Goodman himself explained exactly my experience in reading his...more

  • M Train

    Patti Smith

    Image of M Train

    “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” As M Train opens, Patti Smith enters a dream set in an isolated landscape, trying to get the attention of a cowpoke, “vaguely handsome, intensely laconic.” He ignores her and claims her dream as his own before declaring, “The writer is a conductor.” The book proceeds through eighteen “stations,” rather than chapters, though its linearity remains dreamlike, touching on themes of solitude, grief, and the creative process. The cowpoke recurs, as does Smith’s habit of visiting the café across the street from her apartment to drink black coffee and follow her meandering thoughts.

    I closed my notebook and sat in the café thinking about real time. Is it time uninterrupted? Only the present

    ...more
  • Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl

    Carrie Brownstein

    Image of Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl: A Memoir

    In the summer I read Kim Gordon’s memoir, Girl in a Band, and struggled to write anything about it. The book is broad and scattered, attempting to establish Gordon’s roots as an artist while also covering basically every side project she took on while she was the bassist for Sonic Youth for twenty years. She seems to write the least about her experiences in the band, even insisting she doesn’t primarily consider herself a musician. Her approach felt emotionally distant, though she acknowledges that people tend to see her that way; yet then she delves into raw, gossipy detail on the dissolution of her marriage with Thurston Moore after he was unable to end an affair with another woman....more

  • Hammer Head

    Nina MacLaughlin

    Image of Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter

    Reading this immediately after Frank Bruni’s memoir, in which he is so open about his life, Nina MacLaughlin seems very guarded in comparison. She has some funny and touching stories to tell about leaving a career as a journalist to become a carpenter, responding to a Craiglist posting almost on a lark, but while she attempts to make clever literary statements by referencing other texts and going into the etymologies of terms, something seems off about her approach. At one point she criticizes an interview with Gabriel García Márquez in which he described writing being the same as carpentry, “With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood.”

    García Márquez admits a few sentences later

    ...more
  • Born Round

    Frank Bruni

    Image of Born Round: A Story of Family, Food and a Ferocious Appetite

    Frank Bruni is best known for the five years he spent as restaurant critic for The New York Times, but while this memoir is very food-focused, only a sliver of it is about his tenure in that position and funny stories of his challenges in dining incognito. Though he opens with the first phone call he received about the job, he quickly contextualizes the significance for him in considering the position by relating another phone call with a colleague who asks him bluntly, “Are you sure that you’re willing to sacrifice the good shape you’ve gotten into?” After a lifelong struggle with overeating and discomfort with his body size, Bruni had only recently found some balance while working as the...more

  • Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

    Mark Doty

    Image of Still Life With Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

    Most often classified as a memoir, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon feels like a novella-length personal essay that starts with Mark Doty’s interest in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings and moves through an elegiac exploration of objects and intimacy. It’s surprisingly expansive for its length, and Doty manages to suggest a lot of detail in his descriptions and narratives. Writing about paintings seems at first like it could be a terrible idea — something along the lines of dancing about architecture — yet here it leads to graceful, compelling prose.

    The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part

    ...more
  • After the Tall Timber

    Renata Adler

    Image of After the Tall Timber: Collected Nonfiction

    One of the downsides of my technique of requesting lots of popular books from the library and then reading them as I progress through long hold lists is that I sometimes get books when I’m not truly prepared to delve into them. Most likely I would have picked something lighter after just reading a long non-fiction book than another long non-fiction book. But there was no dallying when my turn came, as this clocks in at about 500 pages and plenty of library users were in line behind me; I only made it through about half the book before opting not to rack up fines to try to finish it. I’ve read mixed opinions about whether the first third...more

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