Non-Fiction

  • You Are Here

    Katharine Harmon

    A curated exploration of “Personal Geographies And Other Maps of the Imagination,” I appropriately read and browsed through this while visiting a city that I used to live in, wandering old neighborhoods, piecing together streets, and layering new experiences over the mental cartographies. There are a few essays and textual maps in this book, but most of it is visuals.

    One map from Kathy Prendergast shows the US and its state borders and topographical details but the only labels are places that involve the word “lost,” suggesting a country of disorientation, missed opportunities, or even the land that was colonized away from native people.

    The Map as Art is evidently a follow-up the came to be largely because artists sent Harmon work in response to You are Here.more

  • Grace

    Grace Coddington

    As someone who first learned of Grace Coddington from her feisty presence in The September Issue, I felt appropriately chided by the introduction where Coddington declares it “the movie that is the only reason anyone has ever heard of me.” That claim is mostly untrue in terms of the fashion world, but then the average person who saw that documentary is unaware of who edits the spreads in fashion magazines. Her battles with Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour make a good axis of drama for the film, yet the suggested animosity between them seems to be largely in the editing. Though if there are any dishy tidbits, Coddington is too loyal to mention them here.

    Her life story weaves in a...more

  • Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

    Jeanette Winterson

    I loved Winterson’s first, semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit when I first read it as a teenager. Her slightly fictionalized Jeanette struggles through her religious upbringing with her crazy adoptive mother and a difficult coming-out experience. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is partially the memoir version of the same story, up until the point where Winterson jumps ahead twenty-five years to when she began to search for her birth mother.

    I felt some worry through the first part as, even with a memoir perspective rooted in Winterson’s career as a writer, it reminded me so much of Oranges that nothing really felt new, even though it’s been many years now since I last...more

  • The Long Goodbye

    Meghan O’Rourke

    When I read the excerpt from this book in The New Yorker a couple years ago, I wasn’t particularly drawn to read the whole thing. But a copy showed up in a giveaway pile at work, and I wound up turning to it between library holds. I thought I’d put it aside when something else came along but instead wound up determined to finish, staying up late to get to the end.

    O’Rourke is primarily a poet, though I feel that comes through in her prose in relatively small doses. The early chapters read almost like journal entries: the writing is raw both in the sense that her emotions are on full display and that the text is presented seemingly...more

  • Storming the Gates of Paradise

    Rebecca Solnit

    I started reading Storming the Gates of Paradise early last year, but since it’s not a light read, the library wound up wanting it back before I could finish. Only thanks to having added it as my “currently reading” book on Goodreads was my memory jogged enough times to get another copy and finally read the rest. An anthology of essays over a number of years, the book is grouped by subject matter with a fair amount of overlap — each essay was originally written to stand alone, so key facts or concepts tend to get rephrased across them. Some subjects drew me in deeper than others; I found myself relating parts of the “Borders and Crossers” essays in casual conversation,...more

  • The Englishman who Posted Himself and Other Curious Objects

    John Tingey

    In many ways W. Reginald Bray could be considered a mail art pioneer, as he sent a bevy of interesting items through the post including, as the title reveals, himself — twice! He also posted his dog and various objects with addresses and stamps applied directly to them, as when he traveled to Ireland and dug up a turnip and etched his address into it (the turnip itself didn’t survive to be documented). His experiments seem more inquisitive of the abilities of the Royal Mail than artistic though. He sent postcards where the addresses were hidden inside poems or partially represented pictorially or written entirely in a mirror. The postcards included his own address and instructions for their return — taking advantage of the...more

  • Smoking Typewriters

    John McMillian

    For the past couple years, I’ve been pretty focused on fiction, so I determinedly picked this history of the 1960s underground press off my to-read list in an attempt to seek a bit of balance, plus the alternative media angle still had my curiosity piqued two years after I first flagged it for later reading. I felt an ominous suspicion near the beginning when McMillian disclaims that he “tried to present the New Left accurately, as a largely white, broad-based, and male-dominated movement, while nevertheless recognizing the crucial influence of the civil rights movement and the important contributions of women.” It made me worried enough that the recognitions that popped up were more than I expected. Based on its size...more

  • Wild

    Cheryl Strayed

    Like many people, I first came across Cheryl Strayed through her column Dear Sugar on the Rumpus, though her identity was still a secret at that point. Sugar’s advice is so unsparingly raw, honest, and compassionate — I think I read all the entries the first time I came across one of them. One day at a bookstore when I couldn’t find Wild on the shelf, I skimmed through Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of the Sugar letters in book form, only to find skimming through that everything was too familiar for the fresh read I was looking for at the time.

    Strayed’s decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail came after several tough years centered around the death of her...more

  • Giving up the Ghost

    Eric Nuzum

    The story behind this book is a bit more interesting that its execution. In his adolescence, Eric Nuzum was haunted by a recurring dream of a girl in a blue dress screaming at him in gibberish, which lead him to numb himself with various substances and fear what may be lurking behind closed doors. Another girl, Laura, in his waking life was crucial in him managing to overcome this downward spiral. But she died tragically, leaving him with a slightly more tangible ghost to contend with. Twenty years later, he revisits these events and physically visits some of the most haunted sites in the US to try to determine if ghosts really exist.

    It’s unclear if his only problem was...more

  • Swimming Studies

    Leanne Shapton

    The best adjective I’ve seen so far to describe this book is “pointillistic,” as it was described in The New York Times review. Invariably “quietly” will qualify other descriptors, which rightfully suggests it’s a tricky book to recommend to others, especially if you don’t know how it fits in with their usual reading choices. I recently found myself in conversation with someone who revealed her history of competitive swimming and I asked if she’d read this book, then obviously failed to capture its interest potential in one sentence. But we continued talking about swimming and as someone else joined the conversation, the new person immediately asked, “Oh, have you read Swimming Studies?” Between the two of us, we were able...more

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