‘Here Is New York’ by E.B. White *****

E.B. White’s Here Is New York has been described as a ‘remarkable, pristine essay’, and The New York Times lists it as one of the best ten books ever written about the ‘grand metropolis’ of the city.  White’s essay was originally an article written for Holiday magazine; he declined to revise it at all before it was published in book form in 1948.  New York is one of my absolute favourite cities, and I have been eager to read White’s essay for years; thankfully, my parents bought me a lovely slim hardback copy, introduced by Roger Angell, for Christmas.10814

In Here Is New York, the reader receives the privilege of going ‘arm-in-arm’ with White as he strolls around Manhattan.  Of course, the view which we receive of the city is an antiquated one – seventy years can hardly pass without a great deal of change, after all.  White himself writes of his decision not to revise the piece: ‘The reader will find certain observations to be no longer true of the city, owing to the passage of time and the swing of the pendulum.’  Angell justifies this lack of revision: ‘The thought occurs that this book should now be called Here Was New York, except that White himself has foreseen this dilemma,  The tone of his text is already valedictory, and even as he describes the city’s gifts he sees alterations “in tempo and temper”.  Change is what this book is all about.’  Angell rather touchingly adds that ‘Even as he looked at the great city, [White] was missing what it had been.’

Here Is New York is not a long essay, by any means, and is made up of just 7,500 words.  In his introduction, Ansell writes that whilst this book is ‘of modest length… it speaks more eloquently about what lasts and what really matters than other, more expansive pieces.’  White is not always complimentary about the city, although one can tell that he is impassioned of his chosen topic; rather early on in the essay, he writes: ‘The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York.  It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck.  No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.’

As a modern reader, I was obviously unfamiliar with many of the places which White mentions.  However, his descriptions feel wonderfully vivid, as though one could walk around the corner and find oneself somewhere he has mentioned, which has not stood in that particular place for decades. Much of what he says, with regard to the inhabitants of the city for instance, still feels pertinent: ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.’

Here Is New York has a wonderfully, and sometimes sadly, nostalgic feel to it, and throughout, White’s writing is both measured and intelligent.  New York is a character in itself throughout the essay, and it is recognised in all of its grit and beauty.  I shall end my review with a gorgeous and sweeping description of the city, as White saw it all of those years ago: ‘The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.  The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.’


‘Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions’ by Valeria Luiselli ****

The concept of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions intrigued me.  Luiselli, herself a Mexican living in New York, has aimed to look at immigration into the United States, and its effects on the many children who undergo a gruelling, and often unsuccessful, trafficking process each year.  Tell Me How It Ends was originally written in English as a shorter essay, and lengthened when Luiselli decided to translate it into Spanish.

The book’s blurb states: ‘In this urgent, haunting, exquisitely written book, the questions 9780008271923asked by Valeria Luiselli are her own, her children’s, and those she finds drawn up on the questionnaire drawn up by immigration attorneys for the tens of thousands of Central American children who arrive in the United States each year after being smuggled across Mexico to the US border.’  Luiselli herself worked as a voluntary interpreter in a New York immigration court, and thus has first hand experience of learning what the children whom she speaks to have already been through in their short lives.  Her task is a relatively simple one; she follows what is written on the questionnaire, and translates the children’s stories from Spanish to English, to later present to the court dealing with individual immigration cases.  She writes: ‘The children’s stories are always shuffled, stuttered, always shattered beyond the repair of a narrative order.  The problem with trying to tell their story is that it has no beginning, no middle, and no end.’  In her introductory chapter, Luiselli informs us that ‘there are no answers, only more questions’ with an exploration of this kind.

Interspersed with the stories of those whom she meets, Luiselli tells of her own experiences, as she and her family are deemed ‘non-residential aliens’ in the United States.  They decide to apply for green cards, which, if granted, will make them US citizens.  She discusses the process, which sounds draining by any form-filling standards, and its immediate aftermath: ‘When we finally sent out our applications… we started feeling strange, somewhat out of place, a little circumspect – as if throwing that envelope in the blue mailbox on our street corner had changed something in us.’  They decide to set off on a roadtrip soon afterwards, and their journey soon converges with the refugee crisis reaching its peak: ‘We start hunting down any available information about the undocumented children and the situation at the border, we collect local newspapers, which pile on the floor of our car, in front of my copilot seat.  We do constant, quick online searches and tune in to the radio every time we can catch a signal.’

The structure within Tell Me How It Ends is fitting.  Luiselli has approached her central question – what will happen to immigrant children when they reach the United States? – by focusing on forty separate, but interrelated questions or points.  Each of these questions forms the immigration questionnaire.

Luiselli’s account and exploration is a measured one.  Throughout, she talks of opinions expressed by different groups inside America, some of whom deem the refugee crisis ‘a biblical plague’, going on to mock how ridiculous their view of innocent children as a widespread threat to their way of life is: ‘Beware the locusts!  They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen – those menacing, coffee-coloured boys and girls, with their obsidian hair and slant eyes.  They will fall from the skies, on our cars, on our green lawns, on our heads, on our schools, on our Sundays’.  She balances this with those who welcome the children with open arms, going out of their way to help their plight.

Some of the facts which Luiselli presents are shocking; for instance, ‘eighty percent of the women and girls who cross Mexico to get to the U.S. border are raped on the way’, and that during six months of 2010, there were more than 11,000 abductions during the journey.  Between April 2014 and August 2015, she tells us, ‘more than 102,000 unaccompanied children had been detained at the border’, which demonstrates starkly how widespread this problem is.  Throughout, Luiselli recognises the individuality of each child, and each case: ‘Each child comes from a different place, a separate life, a distinct set of experiences, but their stories usually follow the same predictable, fucked-up plot.’

Tell Me How It Ends is topical and important; a really moving and meaningful piece of reportage.  It demonstrates just how widespread the plight of many Central Americans is, and how they are willing to risk almost everything to find what they perceive will be a better life in the United States.  Luiselli’s account is poignant and searching, and as lucid as it is contemplative.  Her position as interpreter gives her voice authority, as does the way in which she approaches the issue of immigration.  She is highly, wholly empathetic to every child whom she meets, and everything which she presents is sensitively wrought.  There is an awful lot of depth within Tell Me How It Ends, and it is both a thought-provoking and unsettling read.

I shall end this review with rather a fitting quote from Luiselli, after many of the cases which she writes about have been explored: ‘In the meantime, while the story continues, the only thing to do is tell it over and over again as it develops, bifurcates, knots around itself.  And it must be told, because before anything can be understood, it has to be narrated many times, in many different words and from many different angles, by many different minds.’

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‘No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters’ by Ursula K. Le Guin ****

Most will know Ursula K. Le Guin for her fantasy/sci-fi fiction writing, which has been immensely popular for many years now and has deeply inspired many readers and writers alike. Her name has even been mentioned as one of the exceptions of highly successful and broadly well-known female fantasy/sci-fi authors. Despite being a fantasy/sci-fi fan myself, I shamefully have to admit that I have not yet read any of her very famous fiction. I always respected her craft and wit, though, and being given the opportunity to read No Time to Spare has consolidated this respect. 33503495

A collection of essays on so many and various topics which were originally posted on her blog, No Time to Spare is an absolute gem of a book. As Le Guin states herself at the beginning, she had absolutely no interest in blogging until she read José Saramago’s (a very famous Portuguese writer) attempts at blogging and decided to give it a try as well, with apparently very successful results.

The book is divided into parts, each of which centers around a specific theme, such as old age and adapting to the changes brought by aging, writing and literature, feminism, politics, as well as various musings on everyday life and events. In between those parts, there are some sections like interludes, which she has devoted to her cat, Pard, and his adventures and journey into life with the author. These were very adorable to read, but I have to admit that they got rather dull at times and didn’t always manage to keep my interest intact.

As far as the rest of the essays go, Le Guin’s witty and sharp observations shine through and her clever opinions and remarks become a delight for anyone to read. Although I don’t really like the idea of creating a book out of previously published blog posts, I am very glad I read this book, since I had no idea that Le Guin maintained a blog and regularly updated it. Plus, it was very delightful getting to read her ideas and opinions on such a broad variety of topics, something which I haven’t really seen from any other author I closely follow.

I would definitely suggest this book to anyone, regardless of whether they are a fan of Le Guin’s or not, of whether they enjoy fantasy/sci-fi or not (although she makes some very insighful and very useful remarks about fantasy and literature). If you enjoy non-fiction and like a certain dose of wit and well-supported opinions in your reading, then I strongly encourage you to pick up this book. I read this as part of the Non-Fiction November challenge, but I waited until its release date to post my full review.


A copy was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.


‘Reading and Writing: A Personal Account’ by V.S. Naipaul ***

I have wanted to read Naipaul’s work for far too long, and came across Reading & Writing: A Personal Account when wandering around my University library.  I wasn’t aware that he had actually written any non-fiction (apparently he’s written lots.  My mistake).  This short work of autobiography, which consists of two essays entitled ‘Reading and Writing’, and ‘The Writer in India’, has been beautifully printed by NYRB, although unfortunately my University’s copy was sans its dust jacket.

5856-_uy450_ss450_Published in 2000, Reading & Writing takes one on a foray into Naipaul’s literary history.  He is a prolific author with many works of fiction and non-fiction under his belt.  Perhaps his most famous work is A House for Mr Biswas, and his choice of subjects for his non-fiction works range from mutinies in India to a book about Eva Peron, the second wife of an Argentinian President.

‘Reading and Writing’ begins: ‘I was eleven, no more, when the wish came to me to be a writer; and then very soon it was a settled ambition’.  His child self, which he goes on to evoke, is rather charming: ‘With me, though, the ambition to be a writer was for many years a kind of sham.  I liked to be given a fountain pen and a bottle of Waterman ink and new ruled exercise books (with margins), but I had no wish or need to write anything; and didn’t write anything, not even letters; there was no one to write them to.’  This inherent need to become a writer was fuelled not at his competitive school, but by his father, and the books which he would choose to read to his son: ‘Sometimes he would call me to listen to two or three or four pages, seldom more, of writing he particularly enjoyed.  He read and explained with zest and it was easy for me to like what he liked.  In this unlikely way – considering the background: the racially mixed colonial school, the Asian inwardness at home – I had begun to put together an English literary anthology of my own.’

One gets the sense that Naipaul is rather an honest author, from passages like the following: ‘I didn’t feel competent as a reader until I was twenty-five.  I had by that time spent seven years in England, four of them at Oxford, and I had a little of the social knowledge that was necessary for an understanding of English and European fiction.  I had also made myself a writer, and was able, therefore, to see writing from the other side.  Until then I had read blindly, without judgment, not really knowing how made-up stories were to be assessed.’  He speaks rather candidly at times of problems encountered in the face of writing, and also discusses his inspiration for making himself a more well-rounded author.

‘The Writer in India’ is composed largely of Indian historical moments, but the scope is too wide for the shortness of the essay.  Many fascinating occurrences are mentioned, but are then either moved on from or glossed over, which was a real shame.  Had this essay been lengthened, or fewer things mentioned in more depth, it would provide a far more comprehensive look into the society in which Naipaul grew up, and explain to the reader more of his influences.

This particular tome runs to just 64 pages of rather large print; whilst it does offer Naipaul’s experiences with schooling, childhood reading, writing, and education, it feels perhaps a little too slight to have a great deal of substance.  He does, however, talk about a great deal of subjects: theatre, cinema, Indian ‘epics’, fables and fairytales, schooling, moving to England in order to study at Oxford University, and the effects of colonial rule, amongst others.   Some of the paragraphs are insightful; others not so much.  Regardless, throughout, Naipaul’s writing is fluid and intelligent.


‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S. Lewis ****

I purchased this for my Mad Woman’s Book Club’s themed read of March 2017 – death and dying.  Again, I wanted to get a little bit of a headstart so that I could ensure my thoughts were up in time, and ended up devouring it in one go in the middle of January.  C.S. Lewis was one of my favourite childhood authors, and I have lost count of the number of times I have read The Chronicles of Narnia whilst snuggled beneath a quilt as a young’un.  I have read very little of his work for adults, however, and was thus rather looking forward to reading A Grief Observed.

A Grief Observed is a slim volume, first published in 1961, in which Lewis muses about the death of his wife, H.  It begins with rather a heartrending paragraph, which certainly sets the tone of what is to follow: ‘No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.  I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.  The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.  I keep on swallowing.’ 9780571290680

The extended essay, as I suppose one could categorise it, has been beautifully wrought.  It is both endearingly honest, and a moving tribute, in which he remembers his wife, and their given places within the relationship.  ‘For H,’ he writes, ‘wasn’t like that at all.  Her mind was lithe and quick and muscular as a leopard.  Passion, tenderness and pain were all equally unable to disarm it.  It scented the first whiff of cant or slush; then sprang, and knocked you over before you knew what was happening.  How many bubbles of mine she pricked!  I soon learned not to talk rot to her unless I did it for the sheer pleasure – and there’s another red-hot jab – of being exposed and laughed at.  I was never less silly than as H’s lover.’

Lewis interestingly discusses a crisis of faith following his wife’s death: ‘But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.  You may as well turn away.’  He is quite unable to pray for his late wife: ‘Bewilderment and amazement come over me.  I have a ghastly sense of unreality, of speaking into a vacuum about a nonentity’.

Throughout, Lewis is contemplative, and talks candidly about the ways in which his grief permeates everything else in life.  He continually questions his own place within the world, and what his life is worth alone.  He also asks, and ponders upon, what comes after the initial period of grief.  ‘This is one of the things I’m afraid of,’ he writes.  ‘The agonies, the mad midnight moments, must, in the course of nature, die away.  But what will follow?  Just this apathy, this dead flatness?…  Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nostalgia?’

A Grief Observed is a writing exercise to both voice and come to terms with his sorrow.  Some of the sentences addressed personally to H are incredibly touching: ‘Did you ever know, dear, how much you took away with you when you left?  You have stripped me even of my past, even of the things we never shared’.  I am personally an atheist, but Lewis’ ruminations on life and grieving were still of interest to me.  I found myself identifying with him on several levels, particularly with regard to the death of my grandmother some years past.  Whilst we have different viewpoints on a lot of things concerned with death and dying, A Grief Observed is an undoubtedly beautiful book.  It feels almost a privilege to be able to read this small tome with its incredibly powerful message.

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‘The Lonely City’ by Olivia Laing ****

‘What does it mean to be lonely? How do we live, if we’re not intimately engaged with another human being? How do we connect with other people? When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Fascinated by the experience, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art. Moving fluidly between works and lives – from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks to Andy Warhol’s Time Capsules, from Henry Darger’s hoarding to David Wojnarowicz’s AIDS activism – Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed. Humane, provocative and deeply moving, The Lonely City is about the spaces between people and the things that draw them together, about sexuality, mortality and the magical possibilities of art. It’s a celebration of a strange and lovely state, adrift from the larger continent of human experience, but intrinsic to the very act of being alive.’

9781782111238Laing is one of the authors whom I wanted to focus upon reading during 2017.  The Lonely City is the book of hers which I’ve heard the most about, so it seemed a good choice with which to begin.  The entirety of the essay collection, woven around the central theme of loneliness at play within the city, is beautifully written.

I’m not personally somebody who suffers with loneliness, but having recently moved to the centre of a big city, I’m conscious that mixing with neighbours and the like is something which seems rare.  It’s astounding that people can be so lonely within the bustle of the city, when so many people live and work close by, but I have a fuller understanding of the reasons which drive one to feel alone since reading this.

Well-measured, and with a series of great examples given, Laing, who focuses upon a lot of famous people as well as her own story within New York City, is rather enlightening upon the subject.  In taking into account art, the homeless, and feeling acutely alone whilst using the Internet, for instance, Laing really makes her readers think, and reconsider those around them.

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Two Non-Fiction Reviews: Elizabeth McCracken and Margaret Atwood

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken *****

‘”This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending,” writes Elizabeth McCracken in her powerful, inspiring memoir. A prize-winning, successful novelist in her 30s, McCracken was happy to be an itinerant writer and self-proclaimed spinster. But suddenly she fell in love, got married, and two years ago was living in a remote part of France, working on her novel, and waiting for the birth of her first child.This book is about what happened next. In her ninth month of pregnancy, she learned that her baby boy had died. How do you deal with and recover from this kind of loss? Of course you don’t–but you go on. And if you have ever experienced loss or love someone who has, the company of this remarkable book will help you go on.With humor and warmth and unfailing generosity, McCracken considers the nature of love and grief. She opens her heart and leaves all of ours the richer for it.’

9780316027663I reread An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination for my Reading France project this year.  McCracken, whom I first discovered back in 2007 when a kind human in Waterstone’s recommended the fantastic The Giant’s House to me, is one of my favourite contemporary authors.  She is consistent, thoughtful, and striking in her prose.  This is the only piece of non-fiction which she has released to date, and it is a heartbreakingly honest work which details the stillbirth of her first son, Pudding.  The fragmented prose style, with its many short chapters made up of different memories, hopes, and dreams, is incredibly fitting, whilst giving the whole such depth.  An Exact Replica… is a beautiful and brave memorial to a lost son.


Strange Things by Margaret Atwood ****

‘Margaret Atwood’s witty and informative book focuses on the imaginative mystique of the wilderness of the Canadian North. She discusses the ‘Grey Owl Syndrome’ of white writers going native; the folklore arising from the mysterious– and disastrous — Franklin expedition of the nineteenth century; the myth of the dreaded snow monster, the Wendigo; the relations between nature writing and new forms of Gothic; and how a fresh generation of women writers in Canada have adapted the imagery of the Canadian North for the exploration of contemporary themes of gender, the family and sexuality. Writers discussed include Robert Service, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, E.J. Pratt, Marian Engel, Margaret Laurence, and Gwendolyn MacEwan. This superbly written and compelling portrait of the mysterious North is at once a fascinating insight into the Canadian imagination, and an exciting new work from an outstanding literary presence.’ 9781844080823

I found out about Margaret Atwood’s Strange Things whilst reading through Kirsty Logan’s blog, and noting down all of those books which she has loved.  I have read – and largely enjoyed – several Atwood books to date, but this marked my first taste of her non-fiction.  I am rather obsessed at present with accounts of northerly snow-covered spaces, in which barely anyone lives.

Strange Things, which is subtitled ‘The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature’ therefore seemed a perfect tome for me.  It is comprised of four essays, which were originally given at the University of Oxford.  Her rendering of these essays is incredibly readable, and each, as anyone who is at all familiar with Atwood’s work, is so intelligently written.  The essays, which focus upon four core stereotypical representations of Canadian life and literature, are varied and memorable, and this is a volume which I would recommend to any world traveller.


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