A Brief Detour into Nonfiction


9780374156046_p0_v2_s192x300  Flâneuse

After wandering around New York City with Lillian Boxfish in Kathleen Rooney’s novel, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse seemed a natural follow-up.  In a series of essays, each targeting a city – Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Elkin introduces the concept of the Flâneuse  – a woman who is “determined, resourceful…keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.”  Whether or not you are familiar with each city, her attention to the idiosyncrasies of the neighborhoods connects you to the landscape. As she addresses famous women who have walked the cities – Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, and others – a connection between creativity and the dangers of women’s striving for independence in a man’s world emerges.  I have not yet finished the book – had to take time out to take a walk.

9780062300546_p0_v6_s192x300   Hillbilly Elegy

I was determined not to read this book, but too many like-minded friends urged me to try  J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy.   Although Vance’s conversational style makes the book easy to read, the misery detailing the violence, poverty and addiction in poor white communities makes it hard to digest.  So much has been written about the book, both as social commentary and political influence (see reviews in The New Yorker and  major newspapers), but basically the memoir is sad and depressing – despite the author’s rise from poverty to the Marines and finally Yale Law School – yet, raising awareness and asking questions.

61eioJoO+wL._AC_UL160_  The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down

The English translation of Korean Buddhist monk Haemin Sunim’s The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down offers a series of short essays followed by short messages based on his 140 character tweets about faith and mindfulness.  The book reminded me of a gift I received years ago when I was in the throes of career building – Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much.  Open either book at any page to get a short fortune cookie message with advice. Sometimes it is amazingly appropriate.


The World’s First Blogger – Montaigne

For Montaigne, it was getting rear-ended by another horse that started his twenty year journey of introspection and observation.  He had started to write for himself about death but, from 1572 to 1592,  he wrote and gave his opinion on anything and everything – horses, thumbs, death, fear, education, cannibals, smells, liars…

In How to Live – A Life of Montagne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Sarah Bakewell writes a painless tutorial of a best-loved philosopher.  In a conversational style, she introduces Montaigne and explains his approach to life through a series of simple questions that would make the master proud.

Each chapter addresses the question – “how to live?”  and in Montaigne’s style offers a selection of twenty answers  that framed his life.  A sample:

  • How to live?  Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.
  • How to live? Do something no one has done before.
  • How to live? Be ordinary and imperfect.

Don’t be fooled by Bakewell’s simplistic phrasing.  She uses each chapter answer to describe Montaigne and how he used everyday incidents to examine life – and write about it in his famous Essays.  Her organization allows Montagne to emerge effortlessly from the pages, but this is not an easy read.  Be prepared to delve into French history and Greek schools of philosophy.

Once started, I found the book hard to put down – educational and informative -although I admit I did not read every chapter studiously.  Bakewell sprinkles the narrative with Montaigne’s quotes, using them as a frame of reference in telling his biography, for example, the poor memory attributed to Montaigne prompted this line…

“unless a man feels he has a good enough memory, he should never venture to lie.”  

The chapters on Montaigne’s early life, political leanings, and the death of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie are methodical, but the pace picks up a little with a chapter on “little tricks and the art of living” and the beginning of “question everything”…

“All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure of that.”

Montaigne’s ideas are timeless, and Blakewell knew how to draw from them.  Take from her book what you will, as Montaigne would advise; it’s not necessary to read everything – unless you want to.

Interested in the primary source? Read some of The Essays 

or another book on Montaigne with a great title…

I Was Told There’d Be Cake

You don’t have to be a twenty or thirty-something to appreciate the humor in Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake – but it would help.    In a series of 15 “being young in New York” essays that range from getting a job to survival,  Crosley will give you a laugh and make you glad you don’t have to have that first job ever again (see essay titled “The Ursula Cookie.”)

When Crosley describes her solution to discarding unwanted memorabilia in her opening essay – you can’t give it away (you’re not sure who gave it you?); you can’t donate (what if reappears?); you can’t just throw it away ( it is memorabilia, after all) – I could relate – and would try her solution – except there are no subways in Hawaii.

I confess; I did not read all the essays. After awhile, the youthful exuberance and kitschy references to 80’s computer games, roommates, and young studs were too much for my aging metabolism; unlike Sloane, I have reached “my noise complaint years.”   Thankfully, her titles provided a guide to essays I could skip, e.g., “One Night Bounce” – if the title doesn’t clue you, the first few pages of each chapter will.    Move on to “Sign Language for Infidels” – a funny manual for all would-be volunteers. She ends with “Fever Faker” – the essay that gives her a reprieve from a strange disease but not from growing up.

Beware – no lifeguards on duty in this book – read at your own risk.

Crosley has a new book of essays out – How Did You Get This Number – sounds a little more grown-up.   Mark Russo in his New York Times review calls it…

” charming and old-­fashioned. [Crosley] mostly succeeds in…her second collection of essays about making it, zanily, in the big city. Crosley is like a tap-dancer, lighthearted and showman­like, occasionally trite, but capable of surprising you with the reserves of emotion and keen social observation that motivate the performance. Her subjects tend toward New York chestnuts: near-heroic apartment searches, bad smells in taxis, New Yorker-­out-of-water trips to exotic places.”

I might give it a read…maybe on a long plane ride…