October 20, 2009 by Reader's Connection
In this week´s Staff Recommends, Irvington´s Susan Wever reviews The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. Inspired by her review, I´ve gathered some books about the New York boroughs, some old, some new, some fiction, some not.
In the Country of Brooklyn: Inspiration to the World by Peter Golenbock
In this reviewer’s opinion, to call Brooklyn a country is no misnomer. New York City’s most populous borough has specialized in exporting American ideals in their purest form for nearly 100 years. Inspired by the acceptance of baseball great Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn, Golenbock crafted this mesmerizing valentine to some 40 Brooklyn-born men and women who have furthered the cause of free speech and equal rights. Notables like Neil Sedaka and Pete Hamill tell their stories, but the most captivating narratives come from the mainly unknown writers, teachers, soldiers, and activists who took a stand against bigotry in the United States and abroad. Says Lester Rodney, who broke ground with his coverage of the Negro Leagues in the Communist Party USA paper, The Daily Worker , “One of the first things we tried to do was shoot down the notion that white players wouldn’t stand [for integration].” Golenbock makes no secret of his disdain for the current Bush administration, but his book isn’t partisan in the blindly allegiant sense–it’s just a passionate reminder of what has historically made this country beautiful. — Library Journal
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
If Golenbock’s title seems grandiose, and the Library Journal review feels politically predictable, then you should seek out a different–truly radical–vision of Brooklyn. Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel is narrated by Lionel Essrog, an orphan who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. He’s a bright kid, but the jabberwocky that he can’t stop barking is frequently obscene, and always startling to the uninitiated.
In early adolescence, Lionel and three other orphans are taken under the wing of Frank Minna, who, the reader soon guesses, is some sort of crook.
This sounds like the beginning of a grim crime saga, and I suppose it is. But stretches of the novel are unbelievably funny, which I discovered when I started reading it at the Farmer’s Market in Broad Ripple. I had finished shopping and was snacking in my car and I hope–speaking of startling people–that my sqawks of laughter didn’t alarm the Amish guys in their stall.
Later passages are less humorous, but quite rewarding. I’ve already requested another book by Lethem.
A staple among readers of the New York Times, urban affairs correspondent Roberts collects 40 of his podcasts for the Times Web site–savvy snapshots of the city that prides itself on its restless energy. Roberts pens snappy glimpses of its personalities, trends, events and general mayhem, including topics such as the gender gap and “eligible men,” fat New Yorkers, the New York City pooper-scooper law, gangster Nicky “Mr. Untouchable” Barnes, and the terror and fear of the 9/11 tragedy. His writing really crackles when he sinks his teeth into the antics of some of those who put their stamp on the city, such as writers Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin in their 1969 madcap political race, Mayor Bloomberg’s deep pockets for wooing voters or President Obama’s early student days of roughing it in Manhattan. Street-smart, informative and occasionally hilarious, Roberts’s new book is New York City as it is and always has been. — Publishers Weekly
Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block by Judith Matloff
Although a roving international reporter used to being in the trenches, Matloff was so eager to make a nest with her new Dutch husband that she neglected to research the West Harlem, New York, street where she snagged a commodious four-story townhouse at a bargain price in 2000. “Needs TLC” indeed proved a euphemism for the decrepit state of the building, and the street hopping with Dominican drug dealers and their out-of-state, SUV-parking customers stood at the “epicenter” of narcotics trafficking on the eastern seaboard. Matloff relates with graceful humor how she had to negotiate gingerly among such resentful locals as Salami, a drug-addled squatter next door who enjoyed taunting her; the street’s kingpin dealer Miguel, from whom she sought protection; and the entrenched, terrified black residents who coexisted mistrustfully with their poorer Dominican neighbors amid a kind of “social apartheid.” Meanwhile, she jump-started renovations on the house with a motley ethnic crew of bickering workers . . . The couple’s presence bolstered the street’s activism, and along with shakeups in city politics, the state of siege began to lift and the street makeup changed. — Publishers Weekly
Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment
Judith Matloff thinks she has real estate problems? Alex and Ruth Cohen have real estate problems. They’re trying to sell their East Village apartment and acquire a new home, but their quest is complicated because their dachshund Dorothy has to undergo surgery, and because a truck driver who is possibly a terrorist has overturned a gasoline tanker in the Midtown Tunnel. That sort of thing affects apartment prices.
This 2009 novel isn’t even 200 pages long, but it’s the one you’ve been waiting for, the one that combines house-hunting, terrorism, paranoia and a dog’s point of view. Ciment’s view of the human species is unsparing yet affectionate. I may not have squawked with laughter–as I did while reading Motherless Brooklyn–but I did a lot of grinning.
In the 1950s, Jane Jacobs, lover of the dynamics of city neighborhoods, was a writer for Architectural Forum, challenging the conventions of architects and planners inspired by Le Corbusier and supported by federal urban-renewal programs. When the mercurial master builder Robert Moses planned a roadway through famous Washington Square Park, where Jacobs brought her children to play, she butted heads with the most powerful man in the city. Moses, who built the Lincoln Center and numerous bridges, was a man whose plans and visions had gone unchallenged by mayors, governors, and presidents . . . But Jacobs fought plans by Moses and others that threatened vibrant Greenwich Village and other communities . . . Reporter Flint offers a fascinating history of the two combatants as well as an architectural history of New York City. — Booklist
The library´s Month of Mysteries isn’t over, so we’re not going to get out of New York without my mentioning Matthew Scudder, hero of Lawrence Block’s great private eye series. A movie was made of Eight Million Ways to Die, and its biggest mistake was taking the action to Los Angeles. Do you want to watch a western that’s set on Vulcan?
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes (1986) is my favorite, but much of what came later is wonderful–if nasty vigilante mayhem doesn’t rub you the wrong way–and even the earlier, scrappy tales are okay.
In the novels following Ginmill, Scudder is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. In at least a couple of the books, A Dance at the Slaughterhouse and A Walk among the Tombstones, Matt stumbles into cases as a result of his AA involvement. Block’s picture of twelve-points culture is fascinating (check out Michelle Huneven for a West Coast take on AA), but I’m thinking of all the coffee Scudder drinks at those meetings, and I’m starting to get a buzz. Gotta go.
A celebratory narrative populated by dozens of characters who plan, run in and observe the annual New York City Marathon.The 26.2-mile race through the streets and parks of all five boroughs began in 1970 . . . Some of the participants were serious runners from nations all over the globe; others walked more of the course than they ran; others never intended to stay the course for 26.2 miles. In all categories, a significant percentage were exorcising personal demons. The author skillfully weaves individual runners’ dramatic personal sagas throughout the narrative. One of the most interesting portraits captures 45-year-old wife and mother of three Pam Rickard from Rocky Mount, Va. Fourteen months before the race, Rickard completed a 90-day jail sentence for driving while intoxicated. She had been an alcoholic, dangerous to herself and others; the marathon, she hoped, would serve as a sign of her penance and recovery. Robbins unfolds Rickard’s and others’ efforts mile by mile. Along the way, she describes each neighborhood serving–occasionally unwillingly–the hordes of entrants disrupting its natural rhythms. For non-marathoners, the unusual tour of New York City’s five boroughs might be at least as interesting as the runners. — Kirkus Reviews