Just a minute

The good

1. American essayist Vivian Gornick writes about the quirks of her friends as well as strangers in the street so vividly that readers would think that they are standing next to her, drinking steadily and deeply from the mean and marvellous well of life in the streets.

This effect is all the more remarkable because she presents episodes from her life in run-on snatches with no dates or times, yet her spare narrative is elegant and fluid.

2. Knowing, perhaps, that even the most captivating writer can be a drag if he talks mainly about himself, Gornick has interspersed her ruminations with the insights of, and her insights into, sages for the ages such as her fellow essayists Samuel Johnson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, playwright and poet William Shakespeare and the redoubtable American psychologist William James, brother of the novelist Henry James.

3. She is in full command of her material, marshalling her views on such diverse subjects as identity, the war of the sexes and compassion into a pointed and poignant proposal on how to live.

4. Her acerbic voice and dry wit recall that of the late American writer Helen Hanff, who was famous for her epistolary book 84 Charing Cross Road. In fact, you may enjoy this book even more if you read it in tandem with two of Hanff's later books - Apple Of My Eye (1978), on her walks around New York; and Letter From New York (1995), a compilation of her radio broadcasts for six years on the BBC programme Woman's Hour.

The bad

Gornick's essays are what the book trade calls creative non-fiction or stories woven from hard facts. She, however, admits freely that her emphasis is on the word "fiction" in that term. This includes what she calls "embellishing" events that actually happened and merging her observations on many people into one composite character.

She stresses that she does this to make her narrative more compelling. As she told The Believer magazine in March: "I fell in the street 10 years ago ... and really hurt my knee. And I wrote a story about what happened. But actually the story I told was only part of what happened.

I thought: To whom do I owe the actuality? I owe the story!"

While this approach does not, however, detract from the relevance and resonance of the book, you may want to take some of her too-neat tales with a pinch of salt.

The iffy

While Gornick says she is tamer in prose than in person, she can be uncomfortable to read at times, as she is unflinching when she writes about lovers who, say, want unnatural sex or are dismissive of her.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline '(No headline) - SUKBIG19B'. Print Edition | Subscribe