Non-Fiction

  • Born Round

    Frank Bruni

    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

    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 of

    ...more
  • After the Tall Timber

    Renata Adler

    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

  • Quiet

    Susan Cain

    As someone who has consistently been described as quiet, I felt obligated to read this book, though I didn’t expect to be blown away by it. I would say Quiet seems most useful for people who never realized they are introverted or extroverted people who just don’t get people who fall on the other side of the spectrum. Cain draws on a fair amount of psychology and biology research to break down introversion on a scientific level and describes ways that more introspective people can be effective in leadership positions, despite the Western preference for extroversion.

    The chapter looking at cultural differences in introversion and extroversion felt highly simplified, comparing white Western norms to those in Asian countries, including some...more

  • Men Explain Things to Me

    Rebecca Solnit

    Rebecca Solnit wrote the first and titular essay in this collection in 2008, after which it was posted on TomDispatch. Since then it has taken off and been reposted several times, along the way inspiring the portmanteau “mansplaining.” It was worth rereading that one for a second or maybe third time, but the other six essays in this book aren’t just filler to make a book version of a viral sensation.

    Despite giving a feminist eye to some bleak topics — as in the one where she connects Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual assault of a hotel maid with the IMF’s treatment of developing countries — there’s a recurrent sense of hope across these essays, for me most palpably in “Woolf’s Darkness: Embracing the...more

  • Loitering

    Charles D’Ambrosio

    In some people (usually willful or grandiose or highly defended types) there’s only a very small difference between talking incessantly and saying nothing. I vaguely remember a quote from Roland Barthes, who claimed his rhetorical needs alternated between a little haiku that expressed everything and a great flood of banalities that said nothing.

    I expected that I would really like this collection of essays, reading about it first through D’Ambrosio’s interview with Leslie Jamison for The New Yorker. I was especially curious about their discussion of his work being “marked by a figure standing outside some kind of threshold.” In actuality, while I appreciate the style of his writing, the overarching themes of the book felt too bleak for me...more

  • The Unspeakable

    Meghan Daum

    Meghan Daum opens her second book of essays by explaining how she hoped that all together they would “add up to a larger discussion about the way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses.” This examination of the disconnect with how one is “supposed to feel” compared to our actual feelings succeeds best in the opening essay, “Matricide,” largely about her mother’s death and complicated relationships between mothers and daughters. Some of the other apparently “unspeakable” topics — like loving dogs and Joni Mitchell and not being a foodie — ring rather false in comparison. But by that point, I was also less inclined to find common ground with Daum, since these all came after the essay on her being an “Honorary Dyke.”...more

  • Bad Feminist

    Roxane Gay

    Roxane Gay is a brilliant writer, and I’m glad to see this book with its hot pink title on the front tables in bookstores, where perhaps people who think they don’t need feminism* might see it. Gay is razor smart and genuine; she has a witty and light-handed writing style, even when digging into complicated issues.

    She writes some simple but important bits about privilege, like: “Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered.”

    And she talks about feminism’s bad reputation:...more

  • The Empathy Exams

    Leslie Jamison

    The essays in the book range widely in scope, from very personal to more critical to more journalistic, though a theme of understanding others’ pain loosely lassos them together. Often this manifests as her own attempt to understand, like her profile of people with Morgellons Disease, who believe that fibers are expelled from their skin and become so obsessed with the delusion they end up isolated from feeling so misunderstood. She wants to understand them, even though it’s so difficult to believe. Sometimes she even dissects her desire to feel others’ pain, as when her brother is diagnosed with Bell’s palsy, and she imagines herself in his shoes so completely that it becomes more about her than him, leading her...more

  • Ordinary Affects

    Kathleen Stewart

    Everyday life is a life lived on the level of surging affects, impacts suffered or barely avoided. It takes everything we have. But it also spawns a series of little somethings dreamed up in the course of things.

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