Book Review: Lily Brett’s New York (essays)

New YorkNew York by Lily Brett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lily Brett is a celebrated Australian poet and novelist, who often writes about family life, including the experiences of people like her, the daughter of survivors of the Holocaust. She also writes essays, and I found her collection ‘New York’ amidst the library of the poet Ramon Loyola, which I’d volunteered to redistribute after his untimely passing.

The collection of essays is extremely charming. Brett has lived in New York City with her husband, the artist David Rankin, since 1989 and she shares her gentle and humorous observations of the famed Big Apple. Whether it’s a persona she’s created or she’s speaking without filter, the author of these collections is neurotic, wry and self-deprecating. She writes in short, punchy sentences, and none of the essays are longer than a few pages. It was written in 2001 but is rather perfect for today’s short attention spans.

The essays are not as simple as they might seem, yet do tend to have a formula. The first theme is introduced, and then there’s a sudden or gentle digression to something that seems quite unrelated. And then, she ties both themes together, often in a way where she teases herself for being serious or unadventurous, too concerned with her appearance or too set in her ways. They are all very personal, but a broader social observation, tied together. She often portrays herself as somewhat naive, but always with a glint of a smile. There’s a deep intelligence at work, but no need to show it off.

My only thought, partway through the book, was how curious I was of how her views of New York City would have changed since 2001. And then I found out that I need not wonder at all. A follow-up book of essays, entitled ‘Only in New York’ was published in 2014. When I’m hankering for a bite of the Big Apple again, I’ll order the book!

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