Thursday, December 25, 2014

Only in New York, by Lily Brett

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Lily Brett's book of short essays on her home city of New York is entertaining, insightful and often quite cathartic.

Lily Brett was born in a German refugee camp after the Second World War, then raised in Melbourne, Australia. For the last 25 years she has lived in New York. Only In New York is a collection of sketches that mostly concentrates on her day-to-day life: favourite shopping haunts, a trip to the pedicurist and stories about mysteriously missing bicycles. There are also pieces on subjects such as loneliness, holding grudges and why Brett thinks she’s so Jewish.

Both of Brett’s parents, Max and Rose, survived Auschwitz. The children of Holocaust survivors, it has been shown, inherit the trauma of their parents. In one essay from this collection Brett recalls a conversation with her mother, where she told her that when she closed her eyes she heard people crying. Her mother, not one for these types of conversations, said matter of factly that there was much crying in refugee camps when children were born. Max and Rose Brett lost all of their family, murdered by the Nazis.

This is the dark cloud that hovers in the background of Only In New York. The rest of the book’s content, however, is light and humorous in tone. Brett has a talent for comic timing and her dialogue, recounting conversations with her fellow New Yorkers, is really funny and endearing. She’s also upfront about her many neuroses and obsessions. (Woody Allen often comes to mind.) It’s her willingness to not take herself too seriously, to even poke fun at herself, that makes these little stories of New York so human and such a joy. It’s quite easy to walk in Lily Brett’s shoes and remember all your own personality tics and quirks. Reading Brett can be quite cathartic for this reason alone. You feel better having read her stories, knowing your not alone in your worries about life.

The other charming thing about this collection is Brett’s ability to take the most mundane, humdrum everyday events and spin them into something entertaining, insightful and fun. She has a great storyteller’s ability to take small, inconsequential details and present them as fascinating and important. For example, her hilarious piece called “Hiroko’s Place”, which describes her favourite restaurant. It’s clearly a dive, but Brett likes it because “It has a sweetness and modesty.”

You could describe Only In New York as having just these qualities too. This is a light read, but a very rewarding and enjoyable one. I was sorry when I came to the end of it.

Only in New York, by Lily Brett. Published by Hamish Hamilton. ISBN: 9781926428673 $29.99

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