Tag Archives: New York

Alice Hoffman – Museum of Extraordinary Things (2014)

MuseumofExtraordinaryThingsI’d heard of Alice Hoffman, author of The Dovekeepers, but never took the time to read anything she’d written. I fell in love with this book quite fast, and not only because it deals with some of my favourite subjects, (freakshows, immigrants living on the Lower East Side, The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire), but because Alice Hoffman is an incredibly talented and beautiful writer.

Through her novel Hoffman traces the stories of two characters, Coralie, a young girl who spends her days serving her cruel father, Professor Sardie, and serving as one of his living wonders at The Museum of Extraordinary things, and Eddie Cohen, a Jewish boy who turned his back on his faith and makes a living as a photographer. The two lives intersect in various ways as they both attempt to help the other escape.

Hoffman is such an amazing writer, telling a story in such vivid detail. It’s been a while since I found myself completely lost within a book, but it was quite easy to do with this one. The characters are flawed and relatable and there is the perfect mix of intrigue and whimsy. Set against the backdrop of the Coney Island boardwalk and the Lower East Side Tenements, this book was a fantastic snapshot of New York City at a particular moment in time.

Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell – Empty Mansions (2013)

EmptyMansionsHugette Clark is a name that I have come across a handful of times; a name used when talking about wealthy eccentric reclusive women. When I saw that this book was about the Gilded Age as well as the Clark family I was intrigued and excited to read it. Unfortunately I had much higher hopes that Dedman and Newell were unable to deliver on.

First off Paul Clark Newell is a distant relation of Hugette Clark, and so in this book she is portrayed in a very flattering light. I’m not saying that I think she’s a terrible person. There is no evidence to that, nor is there actually much about her out there. But I do think that the writers of this book are way more than willing to view Hugette as a victim, who has been taken advantage of by the people around her, most notably the hospitals in which she lived out the end of her days.

I was really hoping that the book would provide a bit more information about the Gilded Age, the great families living on 5th Avenue in Manhattan and the total displays of wealth that accompanied their lifestyles. There is a bit of this at the beginning of the book. In fact a menu from one of Hugette’s father’s dinner parties is included which I obviously found fascinating (I will be attempting to make something off of this menu in the coming weeks). Still, the last two thirds of the book were all about family history and trying to discern the kind of person Hugette was.

In short the book was mediocre for me. Nothing really stood out. I was expecting a grand narrative of New York in the Gilded Age and instead got a pieced together family history. Some of the anecdotes were amusing and there were some interesting facts strewn about, but overall the book just fell flat for me.

Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch (2013)

GoldfinchThis book got such rave reviews when it first came out, and while I can understand why, I personally didn’t love it that much. I thought it was a good book, and it has all the makings of a best seller, a tragic hero who gets himself involved in all sorts of criminal dealings, intrigue involving a stolen painting, and it’s long, very very long.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for long books, the longer the better in some cases. But with the Goldfinch, it felt like it could have been at least 200 pages less. There’s a lot of unnecessary detail, which detracts from the main plot. At points I actually found myself forgetting the important details about Theo; his mother died, he stole a painting.

There’s also a lot of broken dialogue that made this difficult to get through at times. A lot of “yes um – “ “Oh-“ “But-“ and while I understand the purpose of it in terms of Theo’s character, it drove me crazy.

The book is far from being terrible though, and Donna Tartt is a great writer. She manages to give a lot of detail, but does not use flourishing or unnecessary language, and aside from the dialogue, everything flowed relatively well. I think that people unfamiliar with Donna Tartt will like this, but for those who have read her other novels, The Goldfinch will come as a huge disappointment.

Lena Dunham – Not That Kind of Girl (2014)

NotThatKindofGirlI respect Lena Dunham, I admire her work, but unfortunately I just don’t relate to her. In most memoirs that I read I can find some chapter, or passage, or even the most passing reference that I can relate to. This was not the case. Lena Dunham has led such a different life and has experience so many different and unfamiliar things that I just couldn’t relate to anything she wrote about.

That being said, Lena is a fantastic writer; her book is written with an eloquence and grace that I was not quite expecting. She writes about traumatic experiences from her childhood with humour that can only be possessed by someone with the benefit od hindsight While I could not personally relate to her experiences with OCD, sleep disorders, therapy, and loneliness, they were written in a way that inspires understanding.

While Dunham does not write explicitly about her TV show Girls, one of the more fascinating parts of her book was seeing where the inspiration for certain story arcs and characters come from. Lena Dunham’s parents are both artists so she grew up with the New York art scene that Marnie is so separately trying to break in to. She spends one chapter writing about the antics that her and her two best friends caused while working at an upscale children’s boutique, Peaches and Babke. Her scenes translate directly to the episode(s) in Girls, which feature Jessa working as a sales clerk in an upscale children’s boutique, avoiding work at all costs. There are many other allusions to the show throughout her book and it was interesting to see where Lena has drawn her inspiration.

While I didn’t find Lena Dunham relatable, she writes with her own voice, in a very elegant and inspired way. There were certain parts of the book that I didn’t like, but overall Not that Kind of Girl, left a good impression.

Jennifer Egan – A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010)

AVisitFromTheGoonSquadJennifer Egan has does something very unique, creating both a novel meant to be read sequentially, and a collection of short stories that can be read on their own. Regardless of how you choose to proceed with her work, A Visit From the Goon Squad, is masterful in its conception and even more well done in its execution.

The novel follows a group of characters that are all a part of the music scene in New York City ranging from the 1960s to the present day. The two central characters to the stories however are Bennie Salazar, a music producer, and his assistant Sasha. The story does not move chronologically but jumps around in years as well is places with some stories taking place in California and Italy. With the backdrop of “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll,” Egan also explores what it means to be happy. While some characters do find their happy endings, many are left in constant pursuit of happiness.

While at the beginning of each story or chapter it is not always clear who is narrating or what relationship that character plays to the rest of the plot, the stories always unfurl beautifully. You often find out what happened to certain characters through the eyes of others in a dynamic and beautifully woven narrative. I loved this book and want to read it again now that I know how different character’s live intersect with each other.

Rating: 5/5

#TBR Tuesday – Widow Basquiat

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While Black History Month is almost over, I saw this in Barns and Nobel in New York and had to pick it up. Much like I had been reading Generation X in anticipation of the Douglas Coupland exhibit at the ROM, I’m hoping to read this before I go to see the Basquiat exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Jean Michel Basquiat became one of the best known avant-garde artist and painter part of the 1980s art scene in New York. This book provides insights into the relationship between Basquiat and his lover and muse, Suzanne Mallouk a Canadian runaway. Jennifer Clement is well known for her beautiful prose, and I have no doubt that she has excelled in telling this unorthodox love story.

Best Of – Books Set in New York

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)

NewYorkEdward 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

IceCreamQueenOrchard 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

Jazz

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

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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

just-kids-patt-smith-200x330While 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

HowtoLoseFriendsNew 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

Kitchen_ConfidentialFinally 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?