What are you reading these days? I just started reading The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir, the newest book by Vivian Gornick, a memoirist I love who wrote one of my favorite books, Approaching Eye Level. She also wrote the acclaimed Fierce Attachments, her most popular work to date. All of her books center around the basic themes of battling loneliness, finding meaning in one’s life, and a desire for independence as well as connecting deeply with others. I particularly like the book description for “Approaching Eye Level” and think it might speak to many of you: Gornick “explores the fear of loneliness and the search for self-knowledge. Many of us, especially women, find ourselves struggling with both the desire for independence and meaningful work and the need for connections with others. In Approaching Eye Level, Gornick addresses this painful, central issue in our lives, showing us how we can come to know ourselves only by participating in the world.”
I first read Gornick in a coffee shop in downtown Springfield, Missouri, back in the late 90s right after I graduated from college. I was under-employed, with lots of time on my hands and not much money, and this coffee shop with its $2 bottomless cups of coffee, stuffed bookshelves, and comfy lounge chairs, was the perfect spot to spend an entire afternoon. It was there I read Gornick’s Approaching Eye Level, and a bunch of books by the women beat writers (the counterparts to the much more famous male beats like Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and LeRoi Jones), among them: Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, How I Became Hettie Jones, and Diane Di Prima’s Memoir of a Beatnik.
Of course, feminism, and a woman’s role in society (and relationships and family), were constant themes throughout these narratives, with New York City and the Bohemian culture the backdrop for the search for identity in a time that didn’t really value a woman’s voice. I didn’t know when I first read these books that I’d ever live in New York City — and of course, the New York I live in now is much different than the one written about in most of these aforementioned books. In these memoirs, the city seemed at once romantic and thrilling and filthy and scary.
In The Odd Woman and the City, NYC once again takes center stage as Gornick walks its streets, usually with her longtime friend, Leonard, “whose friendship has ‘shed more light on the mysterious nature of ordinary human relations than has any other intimacy’ she has known.” They walk and walk, and, as they do, Gornick continues to engage “with grocers, derelicts, and doormen; people on the bus, cross-dressers on the corner, and acquaintances by the handful,” making sense of the world around her and her place in it, all while meditating on the evolution of a long-term friendship and the making of a modern feminist. I’m enjoying it so far. What are you reading and what do you recommend?