I spent the latter part of this last week in New York City, where I tried to fit in as many cultural institutions as I could. It ended up not being that many as I spent 7.5 hours in the American Museum of Natural History on Thursday. Oh Well, such is life. I did however make it to the New York City Public Library, which caused me to stop and think about all of the amazing books I’ve read that take place in New York. So many of the classics like The Great Gatsby, The Catcher and the Rye, and The Bell Jar, are set in the City of Blinding Lights. Here I’ve compiled a (brief) list of my favourite books that are set in New York, New York.
Welcome to New York (It’s Been Waiting for You)
Edward Rutherfurd’s New York is requisite reading for anyone who loves the city (or who loves massive books). It’s a historical epic, and is quite long, but its also easy to read due to the narrative style that Rutherfurd uses. Beginning with the earliest settlement of New Amsterdam Rutherfurd traces the history of the city to just after 9/11 following the lives of different families through the generations. It’s a great book and a great introduction to the City that has become the epicenter of American culture.
The Lower East Side: The American Dream
Orchard Street was just one of the streets located in the Lower East Side to where thousands of immigrants flocked. The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is story of the “American Dream,” and the immigrant experience similar to Betty Smith’s classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The protagonist, Lillian Dunkle finds herself a member of the wave of Jewish immigrants coming to the city in the 1920s moving into the tenement houses of the Lower East side where she works as a garment maker. Abandoned by her family, Italian immigrants who teach her the art of making ice cream take her in. Smart and shrewd, Lillian uses her keen sense for business to get ahead in life, becoming America’s first “Ice Cream Queen.” While not everything in her life leads to a “happily-ever-after” Lillian still becomes one of the most successful women in American in this rags-to-riches novel.
The Jazz Age in Harlem
While some parts of the novel extend back to the mid-19th century American South, the majority of the narrative takes place in Harlem during the 1920s. Each character is a storyteller and Morrison mirrors the stylistic elements of Jazz with the various characters “improvising” solo compositions that fit together to create the whole work. Jazz music is a main theme throughout the book and Morrison recreates the vibrant atmosphere of 1920s Harlem with her narrative.
An Institution: The New Yorker
The New Yorker has been a New York institution since 1925 and has given rise to many acclaimed literary figures, including Dorothy Parker. Best known for her satire and quick wit, this collection of Parker’s stories, poems, and short pieces published in the New Yorker provide readers with a glimpse inside her life as well as the life of the magazine. Because the pieces are small, it’s easy to pick up and put down her stories, although I devoured them all at once. She’s a fantastic writer and her sharpness and wit has endured to today.
A Fairytale of New York: The East Village
While already featured on this blog, I can’t speak highly enough about Patti Smith’s memoir which not only provides insights into the art and music scene of the East Village but is also fairytale New York love story. Smith writes openly, candidly and quite frankly, beautifully about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Even though the relationship ended, the two remained so deeply in love and shared a special bond that not even his death could break. A heartbreaking and poignant read, set against the backdrop of New York City’s East Village.
Manhattan’s Elite: The Upper East Side
New York has provided a setting for an ample amount movies and T.V shows like Sex and the City of the Devil Wears Prada, where the characters are involved in publishing in some way. In his memoir, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Toby Young writes candidly about what it was like working at Vanity Fair, in the 1990s and his experiences with Manahattan’s Elite. One major theme in Young’s book is the differences between London and Manhattan society, as Young is an Englishman employed by Condé Nast. While not as overly critical of Manhattan’s Elite as The Devil Wear’s Prada, Young is still merciless in his writing about the women of the Upper East Side who refused to sleep with him. Insightful and honest, although sometimes crude and offensive, I still love this memoir about working at Condé Nast in the 1990s.
If You can Make it Here You’ll Make it Anywhere
Finally to round out this list I have Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which has also already been featured on this blog. This behind the scenes look at the “Culinary Underbelly” of American as well Bourdain’s rise to fame takes the reader into the kitchens of some of New York’s most famous restaurants. New York has one of the most vibrant and thriving dining scenes in the world and chefs will often do whatever it takes to land at one of the city’s 5-star joints. After all, if you can make it here you’ll make it anywhere!
So what are your favourite books that are set in New York?