March 12, 2015

Book review: "Sidewalks," Valeria Luiselli

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Sidewalks, by Valeria Luiselli

By Valeria Luiselli
Coffeehouse Press, 2014
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

There's a remarkable sense of flow and coherency to Luiselli's collection of essays, which, alongside her 2012 novel Faces in the Crowd, has helped put her on the literary map as of late. It's not just in the collection's medium blending, either, although this aspect helps it cohere; Sidewalks combines the observation of detail and interest in landmarks of travel writing with the deeper analyses and incorporation of personal details typically associated with the literary essay. No, it's the way in which each essay feeds off and builds on the next. Nothing exists in isolation here; rather, the essays all form an elaborate net. Her starting point is a journey to the Italian island of San Michele, in search of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky's grave. Her flight back to her native Mexico City is then discussed, followed by a meditation on biking ("Manifesto de Velo") that leads to one of the collection's key essays, "Alternate Routes," which juxtaposes her daily bike route with her thoughts on melancholy, as well as a few words on its history and etymology; it's like following her thought process as she bikes.

Besides the form of the book, the form of the individual pieces is also worth discussion. Luiselli breaks many of these essays into brief segments. She is not, of course, the first essayist to do so. However, she carves out her own territory within this well-worn idea by making the small segments stand on their own. The effect, which would be overwhelming if the book wasn't a hundred pages long, is of having several interconnected essays within several interconnected essays. So when she presents a brief fragment about urban violence, "Concrete," it doesn't seem like filler but like one of these pieces in isolation. There are the obvious thematic takeaways from this netting, especially when considered in context with Faces in the Crowd, which is thematically built around connection, but on a more practical note, they're great for building curiosity. A great one no matter what angle you look at it from.

For reference, note that the book has only been recently translated into English, which means its LibraryThing page is still based on its Spanish title, Valse Papieren, which roughly translates to False Papers and almost works better as a title than Sidewalks does.

Out of 10: 9.3

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Filed by Chris Schahfer at 9:50 AM, March 12, 2015. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |