An uncommon commonplace book from a wide-ranging reader.

From the time he was in high school, journalist and New York Times book critic Garner kept a commonplace book, jotting down lines from his readings that he found especially apt and pithy. Although for his own use, he assembled those quotations into categories such as food, social class, travel, politics, money, and war; here, he juxtaposes selections “by feel, not category,” hoping “to let the comments speak to one another and perhaps throw off unexpected sparks.” From a prodigious list of writers—the index comprises 20 pages, from Edward Abbey to Emile Zola—Garner offers a collage of aphorisms, sometimes surprising, often entertaining. While the quotations do speak to one another, they also leap oddly from topic to topic: Comments on flying morph into observations on sunsets, then book reviewing, then on looking at oneself (“I am afraid, this morning, of my face,” Randall Jarrell laments). The multitude of topics includes death, toilets, oranges, reading, vomiting, baldness, dreams, dancing (“I would give all my profound Greek to dance really well,” Virginia Woolf remarked), trains, genitalia, and orgasms (Jim Harrison: “There’s no nature in New York and the closest you can get is an orgasm”). Garner delights in including words not printable in his newspaper, and his selections privilege the sly and irreverent. “I think women admire Marlene Dietrich so much because she looks as if she ate men whole, for breakfast, possibly on toast,” according to Angela Carter. “If Emily Dickinson owned a restaurant it would be Chez Panisse,” wrote Jason Epstein. Motherhood elicits observations from Anne Sexton and Anne Lamott. Sexton: “My daughter says to her friends ‘a mother is someone who types all day.’ ” Lamott: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink. Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”

A diverting trove of witty remarks.

Pub Date: today


Page Count: 304

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2020

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