September and October in Review

Since I never posted a September review, and I only read 3 books in October, I figure I can just talk about both months together. Total, I read twelve books, so an average of six a month isn’t terrible me. October was Just. So. Busy. I didn’t even have tv or interwebs for much of the month, but still didn’t manage to read much. One of the books, Humans of New York, wasn’t even a real reading type book, but you do get great stuff like this:

“The more times I fall in love, the less sure I am about love.”

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I did read some books I’d been wanting to get to for quite awhile, like The Color Purple, Wuthering Heights, and The Land of Green Plums. I ended up really liking Wuthering Heights, which was *quite* unexpected.

So, 12 books total.
Translated 2 17%
Nonfiction 3 25%
Female authors 7 58%

Sunday Salon: Hello from New York!

I spent a lovely Saturday wandering around the city yesterday. I wanted to quickly share a few photos with you.

Here’s a poem by Rick Bartow, displayed next to some of his visual artwork. This was at the National Museum of the American Indian. I had never been to this museum, and would definitely recommend it.

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It was difficult to walk around this beautiful, converted US Customs House building that pay homage to cultures we (in large part) destroyed. Especially the week the Supreme Court essentially took another Indian child away from her father in the Baby Veronica case. Still, I thought the curators did a nice job paying homage to the past wile incorporating contemporary Native culture.

I also visited the main branch of the New York Public Library. Here’s a display for #nyplreads, where people can share what they are reading this summer. After reading Taiye Selasi’s short Story, “The Sex Lives of African Girls,” I want to join Bridget from Chelsea in reading Ghana Must Go.

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Here’s a shot of one of the mail hallways on the first floor. This building is really just gorgeous.

New York Public Library hallway

There was a special exhibit on “The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter”

The ABC of it Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to check out the whole thing, but it looked really interesting.  I love children’s books and would have loved to been able to see how many of my favorites were included in the display.

I really wish my nephews lived closer, as I’d love to take them to our local library and read with them, showing them books I read when I was younger and discovering new ones together.

I thought this giant open book concept was a really cool was to display some of the information. I was captivated by it, and I can just imagine what it must have felt like to look at it from a little kid’s perspective!

giant open book display

Today I’m off to celebrate Pride! So excited to be a part of this historic event – and Edie Windsor is going to be one of the Grand Marshals!

The Sunday Salon

Page by Paige

Page by Paige book coverPage by Paige
Laura Lee Gulledge

This graphic novel is heavier on the graphics than the novel, but the drawings and story are so sweet I really didn’t mind.

Paige Turner (yes, really) is a country mouse moving to the big city. She’s worried how she’ll fit in with so many new people, but at the same time wants to use the opportunity to develop her true self.

She falls in with a small group of creative kids at her school, and they bond over comics and other artsy endeavors.  Jules is a singer/songwriter, her brother Longo is a cartoonist, and Gabe is a writer (and maybe a love interest for Paige).

Paige devotes time daily to her sketchbook, and Gulledge uses the opportunity to show the reader what it looks like inside the mind of her introverted artist.

I lived in New York for a couple years, and I always marveled about how cool it would be to grow up in the city. Paige and her friends take advantage of it – decorating buildings with paper artwork attached with wheat paste, performing in shows, exploring the city. They do enjoy substantial priviledge – as Paige’s father points out, what they are doing may very well border on illegal. Some kids in New York can get away with that. Others, not so much.

Paige and Diana

Paige and Diana

I was excited to see Paige’s old friend Diana some to visit her in New York. Diana wasn’t jealous of Paige’s new friends. She fell right in with them. In fact, I was hoping there would be a little something between her and Jules. We know Jules is a lesbian, and Diana’s portrayal makes me wonder if Gulledge was trying to imply something about her sexuality. (Not that how one dresses or looks necessarily means anything about their gender identity of sexual orientation. In fact, Jules is pretty darn “girly” looking.)  Of course, they could both be lesbians and just be friends, which would be awesome, too! Not every lesbian in a book has to be attracted to any other lesbian that wanders across that pages. (Okay, I’m probably flubbing this up. Bottom line: I like that there was a lesbian in the book, and it was no big deal, and I want more of that. The end.)

Tiny quibble: I do wish the book would have been in color, but I understand that isn’t possible with many graphic novels. We know that Paige is a redhead, but in black and white she reads blonde to me.

Overall, a nice, if a bit idealist, coming of age story.

The Age of Innocence

Age of Innocence book cover

The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton

Or, Newland Archer is a Douche.

Okay, I made that up, but it does pretty accurately reflect my thoughts for much of the time I was reading Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize winner. Not that it’s not a good book. It is! Just probably not if you need to “like” the protagonist. It’s worth reading even just for the descriptions of New York in the 1870s. It’s a completely different world than Manhattan today.

I had heard that book referred to as “The House of Mirth-lite,” but I have to disagree. True, there’s much less focus on the dirty, gritty aspects of the dangers involved with falling to the underclass, but that really isn’t the point in The Age of Innocence. There is still plenty of biting commentary on the hypocrisy of the aristocracy. Continue reading

Poetry After 9/11

Book cover, showing a view of lower Manhattan from the New York Harbor, showing the Twin Towers still standing.
Poetry After 9/11

Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets*
Edited by Dennis Loy Johnson and Valerie Merians

As with all poetry, this collection is not something to rush through. Especially with this collection, there is an intensity, even with the more lighthearted pieces.

Alicia Ostriker writes in the introduction, “Not many of the voices in this book are solemn. Now do they repeat. Like an explosion, the poems fly out in all directions from an ignited core…. This book is a portrait of the New York temperament, a tangle of cynicism, pride, humor, compassion, and of course confusion. Plus the capacity to absorb hurt and rebound.”

One of the more lighthearted pieces was Paul Violoi’s “House of Xerxes,” which describes a scene that it a cross between the Olympic Parade of Nations and the best of Paris is Burning. Here’s the first stanza:

Here come those splendid Persians!
We were expecting fireworks
And here they are!
Short bow, long arrows,
Colorful long-sleeve shirts
Under iron breastplates –
Nice fish-scale pattern on those breastplates.
Just the right beach touch, very decky.
Quivers dangling under wicker-worky sheilds,
A casual touch, that.
And those floppy felt caps
Make it very wearable, very sporty.
Huge amounts of gold,
A killer-look feel
But it still says A Day at the Shore.

There are, of course, poems that deal more directly with the attack, such as Ostriker’s “The Window, at the Moment of Flame”:

and all this while I have been playing with toys
a toy superhighway a toy automobile a house of blocks

and all this while far off in other lands
thousands and thousands, millions and million

you know – you see the pictures
women carrying bony infants

men sobbing over graves
building sculpted by explosion –

earth wasted bare and rotten
and all this while I have been shopping, I have

been let us say free
and do they hate me for it

do they hate me

***

My favorite line in the whole collection, and maybe one of my favorite lines, period, came from Charlie Smith’s poem “Religious Art”

I press hard with my feet
against the earth and
call this fighting back

Every day.

*This book was sent to me by the publisher, Melville House

I ♥ the Strand

My haul from the Strand this week: 
I know the picture isn’t the clearest, so here are the titles:
  • George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
  • Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works
  • Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence
  • David Benioff, The City of Thieves 
  • Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
  • Philip Roth, I Married a Communist
  • Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies
I did very well sticking to my list of books I want to tackle soon for various challenges and my book club. The only impulse buy was the Philip Roth. I was looking for the Rushdie and found I Married a Communist. It’s one of Roth’s Zuckerman novels. I read American Pastoral a couple years ago and LOVED it. This is related, I guess, although I’m not sure exactly the connection. Whatever. Hopefully it will be good, especially as it was one of the more expensive books (and the only one whose price I didn’t check, or course!). All in all, the damage wasn’t too bad. Seven books for just over sixty bucks.

On a related note, one of my friends posted this video on facebook yesterday. I was pretty excited, since I had literally been at the Strand like an hour earlier. I thought the video was really cute, and did a good job revealing, and maybe poking a bit of fun at, NYC’s book culture. Of course, non-NYCers should find plenty to enjoy, too!

No Ordinary Matter

No Ordinary Matter

No Ordinary Matter
Jenny McPhee

Lillian and Veronica are two sisters who have always been close, despite the usual friction between siblings close in age. Now grown, with lives in New York City, they make sure to meet once a month at the Hungarian Pastry Shop.

Veronica is a writer for a soap opera, and she often consults her neurologist sister on the correct terminology when one of the characters is stricken with amnesia or a brain tumor or some other soap staple.

The two sisters’ lives begin to imitate their art when Lillian decides she wants a baby. She scouts out her chosen mate, seduces him, employing purposely faulty birth control, and voila! pregnancy results, the father none the wiser. It gets a bit more complicated when Veronica realizes the unwitting father is the new “doctor” on her soap opera. The two of them seem to have a magnetic connection. Is it because of the secret zygote, or something else?

Family secrets and over the top coincidences abound in this novel. At times, I was annoyed by this, before reminding myself that it was obviously on purpose. There’s an exchange between two characters where they discuss movies that manipulate the viewer. The one says something along the lines of “I don’t mind when I know I’m being manipulated – it’s when it’s a surprise that I don’t react well.” This is definitely the former, but I still can’t fully embrace the manipulation.

I liked that the dialogue seemed realistic in a way that it seldom does in books. It wasn’t always so directly tied to the central conflict, but it managed to propel the action forward while sounding close to the way people actually talk to one another. For example:

“Maybe everybody is a novel,” Veronica said, pleased she had been able to get them off the subject of Alex. “I read the other day about how they’ve been able to encode all of Dickens onto one strand of human DNA, and I started having a science-fiction fantasy about how our DNA is actually literature and that humankind is some other civilization’s history.”

What a lovely idea.

Another thing I liked? Pretty much all of the characters, especially Lillian. She’s not written as the most likable character, but I just thought she was awesome. I loved how she tried so hard to project this aura of invincibility, but could be hurt by things just like anyone else. And I loved how she did unexpected things with her life and career as kind of an “f-you” to anyone you thought she had to follow some proscribed path. Go Lillian!

Jenny McPhee’s written two other novels, A Man of No Moon and The Center of Things, both which look pretty interesting. I certainly like this one enough that I’ll be on the lookout for those.

New York, New York

In honor of being back in New York, I’m bringing you some books that feature the city in some significant way. Not all of these are books I’ve loved, but they are ones that revealed at least one slice of life in this amazing city. I apologize ahead of time for the over-emphasis on Brooklyn and Manhattan. If you have suggestions for more dealing with the other boroughs, suggest them in the comments!
Here is New York

Here is New York, E.B. White. What, you thought he only wrote children’s stories? First published in 1949, this is a love letter to the city that seems just as current today as when it was first written.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe. This is gritty, 80’s New York, showing the class divisions between the monied elite of Manhattan and those struggling to live in the Bronx. It’s not my favorite book, as it tends to sum everything up with a pat “See, everyone is just as bad, so why bother changing” attitude, which I find aggravating. Still, it manages to capture segments of the city, which is what this list is about.

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann. Multiple narrators reveal their portions of New York, including how they’re connected in unexpected ways. One key event is Philippe Petit’s 1974 unauthorized tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. I’d never heard of this, and had to watch the documentary Man on Wire afterwards to learn more. I’m not as much of a fan of this book as a lot of other people were, but it’s still pretty good. It won some big prizes, including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the National Book Award.

Anna Wintour. Credit

The Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger. What’s New York without fashion? This thinly veiled critique of Vogue’s Anna Wintour is not exactly a flattering portrait, but it does show what kind of power she yields in certain circles. For those who’ve seen the movie, Meryl Street and Anne Hathaway do wonderful jobs, but really, there’s no comparison to the book.

Assata, Assata Shakur. I read and reviewed this last year. In addition to being an all around awesome book, there some some great New York scenes, like when Assata is in her wig disguise, riding on the subway with similarly dressed women.

Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese. This is another book I liked, but didn’t love. Still, one of my favorite scenes was when Marion, the narrator, arrives from Addis Ababa. He’s struck by the particular cultural force that is New York from his very first steps in the airport.

Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Letham. A detective story featuring a main character with Tourette syndrome. The action takes place in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, and it’s fun to see the differences between the neighborhoods.

Wait ‘Till Next Year, Doris Kearns Goodwin. I think this may be the only book my grandfather ever read – at least as an adult. He insisted that I read this, and I’m so glad he did. This memoir of a young girl growing up with an all consuming love of the Brooklyn Dodgers, bonding with her father over their home team, brings New York in the 1950s to life.

And a few I’m looking forward to reading in the future:

Moses with model of proposed project. Credit

The Power Broker, Robert A. Caro. Ever since I watched the HBO documentary The Ghosts of Flatbush, about the Brooklyn Dodgers, I’ve wanted to learn more about Robert Moses. This thousand-plus page 1974 biography won the Pulitzer, so I figure it can’t be a bad place to turn.

The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto. Manhattan back when it was New Amsterdam. Yay history!

Sleepers, Lorenzo Carcaterra. I’ve seen the movie, but haven’t read the book. This one isn’t for the faint of heart. Four boys grow up in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, where they begin to get into some trouble. They are sent to a home for boys, where they suffer awful abuse. Years later, they take revenge on the guards that tortured them.

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent

The Winter of Our Discontent
John Steinbeck

Why haven’t I read Steinbeck since high school? I have no idea, especially since I enjoyed his work then. Maybe I thought it was too typical, or something. I don’t know. What I so know is the The Winter of Our Discontent had me hooked from the first page.

I mean, it opens with Ethan and Mary Hawley in bed, making cute little pillow talk. In 1960!

Ethan Hawley is the current head of a once prominent Long Island family. They’ve still got their name, but there’s no longer any money behind them and they’re barely clinging to their privileged existence. Outwardly, Ethan seems content with his life. He may be a bit bitter, but he keeps a smile on his face and a song on his lips.

When the complaints of his wife and children and the condescension of the others in town become too much, he decides to take action. He’ll break from his strict moral code to reestablish his family. He’ll show everyone that he’s not just a clerk in the grocery store his family used to own.

Meanwhile, he’s picking up bank robbing ideas from his children and they are scheming on how to win a patriotic essay contest. Young Allen and Ellen want to win, because it means a trip – one that their father can’t afford to take them on. They spend time exploring the attic, where there are volumes of speeches and other long forgotten artifacts. Their explorations cause their father to muse on why we keep things tucked away in attic, anyway:

I guess we’re all, or most of us, the wards of that nineteenth-century science which denied existence to anything that it could not measure or explain. The things we couldn’t explain went right on but surely not with our blessing. We did not see what we couldn’t explain, and meanwhile a great part of the world was abandoned to children, insane people, fools, and mystics, who were more interested in what is than in why it is. So many old and lovely things are stored in the world’s attic, because we don’t want them around us and we don’t dare throw them out.

There’s a lot in this novel that can’t be easily explained – or rather, people would rather the explanations remain tucked away. Who was responsible for the Hawley’s losing their fortune? Why has the town seductress been paying so much attention to Ethan? So if behind every great fortune is a great crime, can Ethan reclaim his fortune? And if so, how will he live with the consequences?

Sunset Park, according to a White Dude

Sunset Park, a novel by Paul Auster. Blurry picture on cover shows a young blond boy wearing a black sweater, tossing something unseen into the air.
Sunset Park

Sunset Park 
Paul Auster

I was so disappointed in this book. I picked it up because I used to live in the neighborhood south of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I would ride my bike up 5th Avenue to the best taco place in the city, Tacos Matamoros. Then I’d go to La Gran Via Bakery and get myself a delicious coconut macaroon that was so good, a friend declared it must be made with baby jesus parts. Afterwards, I’d walk to the park known for having some of the best views in Brooklyn.

The most delicious macaroon, ever.

And yes, Paul Auster, sometimes I’d walk around gorgeous Greenwood cemetery, looking at the graves of the famous and not-so-famous.

In Paul Auster’s idea of Sunset Park, the vibrant, diverse community becomes nothing more than a sordid backdrop for four white privileged twenty somethings to play out their anarchist dreams while squatting in an abandoned and dilapidated house.

The plot – as much as there is one – revolves around Miles Heller. Miles is battling some serious physic wounds from a teenage trauma. Wounds are a major theme here, made most clear by a young Miles engaging in a thoroughly mature critique of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Despite Miles’s hurt, or maybe sometimes because of it, people are drawn to Miles. Everyone loves him. Including seventeen year old Miami schoolgirl, Pilar. It’s because Miles is running from rape charges that he ends up in Brooklyn. It’s no big deal – everyone agrees, Miles is so great. Just let him have his Pilar. (Ew.)

If you can get past these issues, the book has some good qualities. The descriptions of Miles’s relationships with his parents are particularly realistic. They show people bumbling along, making mistakes, but ultimately forging lasting bonds.

I wish that the rest of the novel could have lived up to the better parts. Le sigh. Oh well – another author I can say I’ve read, and not have to mess with again, at least for a while.