Briefly reviewed: City Boy by Edmund White (2009) | Almost Invisible by Mark Strand (2013) | Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger (1990) | The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten (2010) | A Lady’s Life in the Mountains by Isabella Bird (1870s)
I’m behind on my what-I’ve-been-reading posts (moving+new job = such things!) so here’s a catch-up Briefly Reviewed, briefer than usual. This list includes two of the best-written non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and some really excellently executed prose poems.
City Boy by Edmund White (2009)
I’ve read Edmund White’s biography of Rimbaud and this memoir, and have from those two books found his sentences to be intelligent, his offhanded shockingness engrossing, his self-analysis compelling, his ability to write about sexual and dinner table habits with the same level of detail noteworthy. And the first 2/3 of this memoir of a struggling writer in a particularly interesting era of gay and literary social history, NYC in the 60s and 70s, were great, but the latter third was too much gossip, too little emotional investment, too meandering through descriptions of famous acquaintances and their sexual habits without the tightness of the earlier portraits.
Almost Invisible by Mark Strand (2013)
When I finished this collection I thought, these prose poems are what you see all sorts of people trying to write all the time — except these work. This, boys and girls, is how it’s done. Humor and seriousness, the possible and the impossible, nostalgia and not, narrative and fragment, all held together by a style that unifies without predictability or boredom. You can start with several here, courtesy of the Boston Review, including “Clear in the September Light” which is one of my favorites from the book.
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger (1990)
A book that lives up to its hype and award winning-ness, this portrait of Odessa, Texas and its intense devotion to high school football in 1989 will make you stay up much later reading than you meant to. Heartbreaking, heartwarming, infuriating, exciting, and very sad, it’s a fast-reading portrait of a time, a place, and vividly rendered people. A must-read whether you care about football (I don’t) or not. Or for that matter have watched the whole TV series two times through (I have) or have not.
The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten (2010)
You might remember the title piece, about the experiment of having prodigy-turned-virtuoso Joshua Bell playing one of the world’s most valuable violins in a Washington D.C. subway station for spare change, which went viral a few years ago. I thought then it was one of the best essays I’d read in a long time but it’s not even the best one in this book, which is packed full of compelling stories with a “sure, what the hell, it’ll be fun” sense of humor and a “and this is why the hell it matters” intelligence. These are essays I continue to think about, often. Especially recommended, the one about the guy who entertains at children’s parties, the one about the brain science of parents who accidentally left their children to die in cars, and the one about Eskimo teenagers on the tiny island in Alaska.
A Lady’s Life in the Mountains by Isabella Bird (1870s)
An intrepid Englishwoman who traveled the Rocky Mountains by horseback by herself in 1873 (by herself 1873!) and wrote delightfully acerbic and delightfully delighted letters home about it, A Lady’s Life in the Mountains is both a great Western Americana read and an inspiring portrait of a bold woman, the landscape and the people she encountered, and the dangerous desperado she may or may not have fallen in love with. And, courtesy of the Gutenberg project, you can read it all right here.