The Barbizon is a chronicle of a particular time and place in America. The time is after the first wave feminists have won women the right to vote, but before Federal policies designed to move (white) people out to the suburbs decimated urban America in the 1970s. The place is The Barbizon Hotel, an upscale women-only boarding house not quite in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Only some meals were included, but housekeeping always was, to allow you to pursue your dreams.
The hotel was meant to be a safe space for attractive, white, middle and upper-middle class young unmarried women. A place for them to come to New York City, to get a career, usually as a model, actress, writer, or a secretary. A place for them to stay that was safe, where their parents wouldn’t worry about them. Grace Kelley stayed there, and so did Sylvia Plath and Joan Didion.
And it largely worked: it gave women a space to come to New York City, to be adventurous within a restrictive society’s boundaries, to explore who they wanted to be, at least if you were of a certain type. There is some mention of the restrictiveness of who was allowed to stay there; the final chapter, about the hotel as NYC fell into the 1970s and the future, could examine more about how The Barbizon was a product of its time and it was no longer its time.
I really enjoyed the book. The Barbizon Hotel has a certain imprint on movies and books – if you’ve read The Bell Jar, you’ve read a depiction of the hotel – and it was good to get a grounding on what it really was, how it worked, how it allowed freedom for some and what that freedom really looked like.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a wonderful book with so much love in it that is nonetheless about how structural racism can ultimately affect that love. Tish and Fonny are a young couple in love, and how they became a couple is told in flashbacks to the main story, where Fonny has been jailed for a crime he didn’t commit, and their struggle to free him.
It’s James Baldwin, so the language is marvelous; it’s James Baldwin, so the racism is cuttingly accurate. But what really struck me was all of the ways that love is shown in the story – the romantic love between Tish and Fonny, but also the friendship between Fonny and Daniel and the sisterly relationship between Tish and Ernestine and the parent-child relationship between Fonny and his father as well as Tish and her parents. The story is bleak, but the relationships and the caring that exists between people in the book was what made it worth reading to me.
The Rules of Magic is a fleshing out of the world of Practical Magic by way of the lives of the aunts from that book – Frances and Jet – and their childhood in the New York City of the 1960s. (I’m not actually quite sure the timeline works. It makes more sense if Practical Magic takes place in the 2010s, but the book was first published in 1995. It wasn’t a big issue, but it occasionally niggled at me.)
But I liked reading about their young lives in the city, and I always like reading about adventures in Manhattan in the 1960s, before it was glammed up in the 1990s. I enjoyed their run-down townhouse on the Upper East Side, I liked their witch shop in Greenwich Village. There are more fleshed-out male characters in The Rules of Magic than there were in Practical Magic, too. It might be a more solid book, in that way.
But it doesn’t have the over-the-top-ness of the prior book. And bits of it oddly took place in Paris, which, while one of the more feminine cities in the world (and one of my favorites), isn’t necessarily a witchy city.
I feel like Just Kids – a sort of memoir of Patti Smith and a sort of biography of Robert Mapplethorpe – is the prototypical late-1960s, early 1970s artist life in New York City. They have a precarious relationship to getting enough to eat or keeping a roof over their heads, but the art is the focus. When Patti Smith first went to NYC, she very clearly was homeless for awhile, though that phrase is never actually used. And there is much talk about food and hunger.
But mostly, the book is about art. About her helping Robert figure out that he was a photographer, first and foremost. About him helping her with her poetry. (She still writes in poetry on her Instagram account, it’s lovely.) About their struggle to create art and to live on the money they made from their art. In short, to be artists.
And you can see its reflection throughout pop culture, too, the idea that Greenwich Village and Chelsea are places for artists, even though they’re full of wealthy people who have second homes in the suburbs now. But back in the 1960s and early 1970s, they were neighborhoods where artists could afford to live very cheaply and near other artists too.
There is also a thread that follows Robert Mapplethorpe as he discovered that he was gay and how he eventually accepted it – it’s odd for me, now, living in the San Francisco Bay Area to remember how taboo being queer was for so long. And about the eventual photographs that got so much attention from the Republican Party – he was trying to shock and he did.
It ends, after jumping forward several years to cover Mapplethorpe’s death from AIDS in 1989. Another thing it’s hard to remember – and for me to get my teenager to understand – is how pervasive AIDS was and its effect on not only artists, but the US as a whole. (Not everyone survived Reagan.)
I found Just Kids to be inspirational. It’s about Smith finding her voice and forming a band who will be ok with her being the front person. It’s about how fucking around for awhile in your 20s will lead to you figuring out who you are and what you want to do. And as someone who is about to re-figure out what to do with her life, reading about other people doing the same makes me feel less alone.
All Addie LaRue wants is to see the world. But she was born in a small town in 17th century France, where her only option is to become a housewife and have children and never leave the town she grew up in. So she makes a deal with… not quite the devil, but definitely a spirit of the night – she gets to live forever, doesn’t have to get married, but the catch is that no one remembers her. There are logistics to work out – how do you rent a room if the person you’re renting the room from forgets you the minute you leave their sight? But once she gets those under control, she has an amazing time exploring the wider world and learning and experiencing everything possible.
Fast-forward to 2014 in New York City, where Addie is at a bookstore, and someone remembers her.
I have been excited about this book for what feels like years – from the time VE Schwab announced she was working on it on her social media, to being envious of all the people who got advanced reader copies, to finally preordering it, and then actually holding it in my hands and getting to read it. And handing it over to my teenager the minute I was done with it so she could read it too.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue wasn’t perfect – I’m not convinced that one of the more important characters was developed enough, Henry’s (the person who remembers her) relationship with his family felt very one-note. But the characterization of Addie as being a person who lets most creature comforts go, as long as she has art to consume – that hit home. And the reveal of the framing of the book at the end? Masterfully done.
There are not enough words for me to talk about how much I loved The City We Became. I initially read it in March 2020, when NYC was in the middle of covid lockdown and the book still made me so fall in love with the city that I wanted to move there, like, as soon as possible. (Why am I not writing this until October? Well, let’s just say that pandemic productivity is bullshit and there are days that getting anything done has been incredibly difficult.)
In the book, cities are actual entities that get born into the universe when they reach a certain size and vitality. But the universe has forces who don’t necessarily like it when this happens – it’s a very Lovecraftian premise. New York City is in the process of being born, and its avatar (the young homeless artist who is the personification of the city) has gone missing after the battle of its birth. So each borough of the city gets its own avatar, its own person. Manhattan is a young brown man of indeterminate origin who has just moved to the city, the Bronx is an older Lenape woman, Queens is a young Indian mathematician, Brooklyn is a former Black rapper who is now on city council, and Staten Island is a young White woman who is terrified to leave the island. They all have to find each other, and then the main avatar in order to defeat the manifestation of the universe who would like to see the city snuffed out. It’s a basic quest story with twists and turns and I loved it.
It’s the first of a trilogy (warning: she’s still writing the next two books), but it’s based on a short story in How Long Till Black Future Month? So if you’re looking to see whether or not you’ll like the book, you could do worse than to track down the story and read that first.
Anyway. The City We Became is a damn delight and if you’re looking for a reason to fall in love with New York City you could do worse than reading this book.
Here’s where I confess that I didn’t know much about Susan Sontag, her life, or her work before reading Sontag: Her Life and Work. I knew of her, of course, I knew she was a Public Intellectual ™, and that as a result many people had strong opinions about her. My own thoughts were a sort of mild disdain that I think comes from being a member of Gen X, and reading criticism of her without engaging with her own actual work beyond Notes on Camp.
I read Michelle Dean’s Sharp a few years ago. That book is a high-level overview of the lives of many 20th century public intellectuals who also happened to be women; Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Dorothy Parker, Nora Ephron, and Joan Didion, amongst others. Without the softening of my views (or maybe a recognition of my own internalized misogyny) by Sharp, I’m not sure I would have decided to read Sontag.
Benjamin Moser has written a very in-depth biography, delving into both her relationships and her intellectual work. She clearly wants to be an intellectual from an early age., and works diligently to make it happen – and I feel like that try-hard-ness is ons of the reasons I was taught to disdain Susan Sontag. Trying wasn’t cool – everything had to be easy or come naturally to be accepted. Susan Sontag was both very smart and didn’t bother to hide her work.
One idea that she engaged with over and over, especially after her initial struggle with breast cancer in her 40s, was the relationship between a thing and its image, how the image, or the metaphor influenced how the reader or viewer thought about the thing itself. Now that we’re all living through the internet because of the pandemic, images and metaphors are what we swim in, even more than normal. I wish she was around and at the top her game right now because I bet she’d have a lot to say about Instagram (and maybe you want to read The Cut essay by Emily Ratajkowski about buying her own images back).
I often end a review with a recommendation, and I often cop out by saying ‘read this if you’re looking for x.” So much of reading and your enjoyment of a thing is dependent on who you are and where you are in your life. Understanding the basics of Susan Sontag’s ideas is essential to understanding how we think of public intellectuals, liberal or conservative, and how our political and media landscapes exist in the world. I would argue that this book will give you a good grounding in understanding those basics, regardless of what exactly you’re looking for.
There is not much plot in Weather, by Jenny Offill, and that is to its credit. Plot would get in the way of the point, which is the day-to-day life of a librarian and mother of a small child in New York City who is increasingly worried about climate change. This book is full of hilarity, to wit (about a problem patron): “But how to categorize this elderly gentleman who keeps asking me to give him the password to his own email?” Reader, I laughed out loud.
Her brother is an addict who gets sober, finds someone to fall in love with, gets married, has a baby, freaks out, relapses, and gets a divorce. Towards the end of the book, she may or may not have an affair, her prepper tendencies get stronger. Her son gets a couple of years older, the dog needs to be walked. Somehow, this all results in us asking the question: how do we care for each other and how do we care for the world?
The language is lovely and wonderful, and if you told me that the author was a poet I’d believe you.
I’m also going to say that this is kind of a book about the end of the world, given that climate change features in it. Given that, is it a good book to read during the time of corona? I think it is.
If the first chapter of The Beastie Boys Book is a love letter to Adam Yauch, the second (titled: Beastie Revolution) is a love letter to 1981 New York City from Luc Sante. He describes a romantic vision of being a punk kid from a poor, forgotten city that is full of music. It is immersive and beautiful and you can feel the raw energy of a place that’s about to burst (re-burst?) back into America’s consciousness.
I think I listened to the author-read version of this chapter like three times and read it at least twice. There are too many bands to name, too many artists, all people who lived on the edge of society and could make a living as a poor artist because living in NYC was cheap.
If you want to fall in love with New York City and early rap and punk music, you could do worse than reading this chapter as a stand-alone essay.
A French Exit is the fine art of leaving a party without saying goodbye. French Exit, the book, is about a woman who is trying to leave the party of life without saying goodbye to anyone, except maybe her son. It only works to a particular degree.
It starts with Frances (the woman, notorious for finding her husband’s body, closing the door, and going skiing for the weekend instead of reporting it) and Malcolm (her adult son, whose main life ambition seems to be to do as little as humanly possible) leaving a party early because they can, with Malcolm having stolen a framed picture from the wealthy household. You shortly find out that Frances has almost spent all of the money she inherited from her very wealthy husband; she and her son, who leaves behind a fiancée, soon leave for Paris along with their cat.
Their lives get weirder, more absurdist, once they’re in Paris. They collect people around them, ranging from a private detective who only speaks barely-passible English to an unemployed American woman who can see when people are about to die. Weird, in French Exit, is good.
I won’t spoil the ending, but the entire book is death-obsessed and nihilistic in that way that only wealthy upper-class people can be nihilistic. It is funny, and I would recommend it, but only if you’re in the mood for something that most people would consider to be a little bit off.