New York

On "Fist Stick Knife Gun" and "Charm City."

I've been in a reading mood where I'm re-reading a lot of nonfiction that really knocked me over the first time I read it, so last week I re-read Geoffrey Canada's memoir/call to action Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence. I first read this book back in 2011, and here's what I have to say about that: I can't believe I've been blogging this long, and I can't believe how clearly how much of that book stayed with me.

Geoffrey Canada is the president and former CEO of an organization called the Harlem Children's Zone. He grew up in a violent neighborhood and he has spent his life trying to help children (and adults) better their surroundings. He has also spent his life advocating for better gun policies in America, mainly because he saw firsthand the shift from fist and knife violence on the streets to gun violence. He also makes no secret that he owned a knife and he owned a gun, and the writing in his book on how weapons both make you powerful and vulnerable makes the entire thing worth reading. For my money, I wish a lot more communities would pick this book for their "community reads."

So while I was thinking this book over I noticed that a documentary called Charm City (about Baltimore) was showing on my PBS channel. It's stupendous. And by that I mean it's heartbreaking and scary and overwhelming and yet oddly life-affirming. It's well worth a watch.

I don't actually know what to do with all the thoughts I've had about re-reading this book, and watching this movie, and doing them both within the week. I want to say something here. But I don't know what it is. Go read the book and watch the movie and then come back and tell me what you're thinking, will you? I can't think about these alone.


Well played, 2019.

I'm pleased to note that 2019 is off to a strong start for me, at least reading-wise. And the reading part of my life is one of the few parts of it that I take very seriously, so this is good news.

No one tells you thisLast week I got Glynnis Macnicol's memoir No One Tells You This from the library; how I found it and why I requested it, I of course don't remember. I really have to get back to my reading notebook and start tracking where I read about the things I request. Or, I can become more comfortable with just forgetting why I do any of the things I do. Yeah. That'll probably be easier.

There's nothing all that outstanding about this book; it's basically a forty-year-old woman's working out, on the page, what she's made of her life so far and what it means to make a woman's life without marriage and children in it (which is still the prevailing narrative for most women). It's also the story of her mother's decline and eventual death due to Parkinson's Disease, and what it looks like to try and help with caregiving when you live in a different city than your parents and other family members. Here's what the jacket copy has to say about the book:

"...single women and those without children are often seen as objects of pity, relegated to the sidelines, or indulgent spoiled creatures who think only of themselves. Glynnis refused to be cast into either of those roles and yet the question remained: What now? There was no good blueprint for how to be a woman alone in the world. She concluded it was time to create one."

More and more lately I find myself basing my judgment and enjoyment of memoirs less on their subjects and execution than on, quite simply, how much I like the author. What does this oh-so-scientific process look like? I read about twenty to fifty pages of a book, and if I feel, meh, I just stop reading (even when I think something is well-written). On the other hand, if, in those first fifty pages (which, because I skip around a lot when I read: beginning, last chapter, bits of the beginnings of chapters in between, can really come anywhere in the book), I have a moment when I read something the author has written and I think, "HA...I like you," well, then, I just decide I will enjoy the book and read the whole thing.

So that's what happened here. And here's the point where I decided I just like Glynnis, even when I don't agree with everything she's saying or doing:

"If there had been a soundtrack to my life in recent years it was the buzz of my phone. If there was one thing I wanted to leave behind in my thirties, it was my phone. It felt like a narcotic...the device itself was not entirely the problem, so much as the fact that it held incontrovertible evidence of the series of bad relationship decisions I'd made over the past few years. It was like carrying around a court transcript of my personal crimes and misdemeanors, proof of a person I didn't want to be but had been...repeatedly.

She was always waiting for me. If I scrolled up (and up and up) I'd eventually reach that first innocuous hey that had unleashed her. Men and their heys. I'd come to see them as a 'dead end' road sign: nowhere to go past this point." (pp. 35-36.)

Men and their heys.

I didn't even laugh. I just snorted and felt how deeply I knew all the weariness in that one statement. I have a very small dating history and am obviously one of the few women in my (or any) generation who has never gotten or taken a lot of shit from men, if the sheer number of stories out there is any indication, and even I instantly recognized the universal truth of those four little words. How many times did I get excited when some man gave me a "hey"? How many times did I analyze what a "hey" or any other little innocuous sentence meant? How frustrating is it that an entire generation of men now thinks that's an acceptable way to contact women on social media or in texts (and evidently you just have to count yourself lucky if that's all the more clueless or aggressive they are)?

Men and their heys.*

I like you, Glynnis. I liked your book. I appreciated opening 2019 with it. Go write some more and I'll read it. Until then I'll just think "men and their heys" in my internal voice dripping with derision and feel solidarity with you, even though I'm a married woman with kids living a narrative more recognizable to society. You never know what we've all got in common, do you? That makes me happy.

*Although men are really pretty incidental in the book. Mainly Macnicol is just doing her own thing. And I liked that too.


Stacy Horn's Damnation Island and more essay chat.

I've not yet reviewed it here, but I have read (and loved) Stacy Horn's new book Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. I also had the good fortune to interview Stacy about the book for The Millions. But the big news this morning is that her book got a great review in the New York Times! YAY, Stacy!

The book is not a light read but I loved it for all the usual reasons I love Stacy Horn's nonfiction writing: It's thoughtful, it's well-organized, I know it's been exhaustively fact-checked. But she always brings a little something extra to her stories, even when they're about crime and horrible mistakes that all sorts of people make, not just criminals but also those seeking to reform criminals: sympathy. You finish this book and you're sad, mostly because if you read enough books like this you realize there have never really been any "good old days," but also because you can't believe how much how many people have suffered down through the ages. But at the same time, she never really seems to give up. I like her tenacity. In her last pages she points out how the struggle to figure out how best to incarcerate people still goes on, and that we first have to learn about these problems to start to consider how to approach them.

In other Essay Project news I'm now in David Sedaris's We Talk Pretty One Day. Anyone else read the Sedaris? What are your thoughts? In reading (re-reading? I think I've read it before but can't remember--never a good sign) I find that I'm feeling the same way about Sedaris that I have always felt about him: I largely don't understand the appeal. I think he's a good writer, and he sometimes makes me laugh (mainly when telling stories about his very...ahem...interesting family), but I've never quite understood why he became a huge best-selling essayist. Can someone explain the appeal?


Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner: Helene Hanff's Underfoot in Show Business.

We all know Helene Hanff, of 84, Charing Cross Road fame, right?

Okay, well, if you don't, go get it and read it RIGHT NOW. I was always a little appalled that I've been a book person my whole life and still, nobody told me about 84, Charing Cross Road until I was in my early 30s.

So yes, that book's awesome. And a classic that should, by all rights, be the Helene Hanff book that makes it on to my list of educational/seminal/take-to-a-desert-island Nobody Puts Nonfiction in a Corner nonfiction book.

But, surprise! I'm going to choose her memoir Underfoot in Show Business instead.

I realize we're pretty far down the rabbit hole here. But stick with me.

Before Hanff wrote all her letters to the bookseller Frank Doel at Marks & Co., at 84 Charing Cross Road, and long before she became famous for publishing a book-length collection of that correspondence, she was a struggling writer living in New York City. And before she was a struggling writer, she was a struggling playwright. And before that, she was a young girl growing up in Philadelphia in a family who loved theater. So, after having to drop out of college after one year, because it was the Depression and nobody had any money, Helene found a job in Philadelphia to try and finance her move to New York City to try and become a playwright. Her career started off with a bang: she won a playwriting contest sponsored by the Theatre Guild (then a prestigious theatah institution), and was awarded a $1500 fellowship and participation in a playwriting seminar.

From that first flush of early success everything takes a most appropriate dramatic turn: in her first paragraph, Helene lays out what she calls Flanagan's Law:

"We'll begin with the law that governs the life of everyone one of the 999 [aspiring theatrical types] from the day he or she first arrives in New York, which was first explained to me by a stage manager named Bill Flanagan. Flanagan's law of the theatre is:

No matter what happens to you, it's unexpected." (p. 7.)

So, of course, you read the entire memoir, and you learn that Hanff never became a famous playwright. And to a large extent you don't care, because you know (which Helene didn't, at this point, Underfoot was her first book and 84, Charing Cross Road was far in her future) she'll become famous for writing half of the world's best book-related epistolary collections ever. But also you don't care because this memoir is so fresh, so hopeful, so beautiful, so life-affirming*, that you'll find yourself smiling after you read every chapter.

Take, for example, this paragraph, in which she describes how she had to go to New York to meet the Broadway producer who was partially responsible for her winning the fellowship. She had nothing to wear, but:

"On Monday night, my father triumphantly brought home for me a new green rayon suit which he had got wholesale from a friend. The suit was a brighter green than I would have chosen, and not precisely my size, but my mother took it in at the waist and let it out at the hips and cut off the row of threads that hung from the hem, and we decided it looked great." (p. 10.)

Everything about that short paragraph is so hilarious. How her parents (who loved the theater themselves) supported her; her gentle but still to-the-point admission that the dress is a little too green and it doesn't fit quite right; and how they all decided it looked great anyway.

Dear readers, she is like that about everything, and that is why this book is so awesome. Just recently I re-read it, and, just as it had been on the first read, one of my favorite chapters was about how she and her actress friend Maxine learned how to get all their entertainment and education for free in New York City. At one point Helene tells Maxine she wants to learn Greek and Latin (God I love her) and this is how she and Maxine solve that problem:

"'Why don't you run an ad in the Personals column of the Saturday Review?' Maxine asked.

'The problem isn't finding a tutor,' I said. 'It's finding the money to pay him!'

'Oh, that's all right,' said Maxine reasonably. 'Just mention in the ad that you can't pay anything.'

And if you think I got no response to an ad that read: 'Wish to study Latin and Greek. Can't pay anything.' you underestimate the readers of the Saturday Review..."

She ended up being tutored for free by a young man (Maxine suggested she choose him, as he was Harvard-educated and young and "might be cute"). And this is how that encounter ends:

"Maxine phoned me after the first lesson.

'How was he?' she asked.

'Oh, he's great!' I said.

'I told you to stick to Harvard,' she said. 'Taking somebody second-rate would be like sneaking into theatre and sitting in the balcony, or borrowing clothes from Gimbel's instead of Saks. If you're getting things for nothing, it's just as easy to get the best.'

We always got the best." (p. 57.)

My favorite thing about Helene in this memoir (and in her subsequent books) is that she refuses to be beat. For years while she ordered books from the store in London on Charing Cross Road, she dreamed of saving up enough money to visit England, and every time that she almost had enough saved, something else came up: she needed a mouthful of crowns, or she got evicted and had to move into a more expensive apartment. During one eighteen-month period she moved eleven times, so you can imagine her joy when she finally got a tiny place of her own:

"I moved in forthwith and plunged into the job of furnishing and decorating. I furnished the room in what New Yorkers called Early Orange Crate. The super helped me make a bookcase out of wooden planks he found in the cellar, and a dressing table for the bathroom out of an orange crate. One of my brothers donated a dresser his little girls had outgrown, and I bought a secondhand dropleaf table and chairs and a secondhand studio bed. Add white enamel paint to cover everything, my old white rug, and yards of red burlap which Maxine draped across the top of the window and down over the rusty living-room pipes in an opulent swag--and in our objective opinion the room was simply stunning." (p. 86.)

Oh, I love her. She never fails to cheer me up. When I went into the hospital to give birth to the CRjrs do you know what I packed? A nightgown, FiberOne granola bars, and Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road and its sequel The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. And do you know why I didn't take Underfoot in Show Business? Because I hadn't read it yet at that point. If I had you can bet I would have unpacked the nightgown (they give you a hospital gown anyway) to make room to take it along.

Don't make that mistake. Read all the Helene Hanff, you can, RIGHT NOW.

*And you know me. I DO NOT USE bullshit words like "life-affirming." Except when I am describing Helene Hanff's books.


Second great read of the year: Serpico.

Okay, I read Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System in 2017, too, just like I read Prairie Fires, but frankly, I was ready to be done with 2017 a few weeks before it actually finished, so there's that. I was able to fly through Serpico because it was my book to take along when we stayed overnight at my in-laws' for the Christmas holiday. I love my in-laws and they are very nice to open their house to us, but for some reason I can never, ever sleep there. So I always make sure to take along a book that will keep me company from, roughly, the hours between 10 p.m. (when, if we're lucky, the CRjrs, after all the excitement of presents and cousins and too much food, oh my, finally drop into an exhausted half-sleep) and 4 a.m., when maybe, sometimes maybe, I can pass out and dream anxiety dreams because I know the boys will be up again in two hours and will wake me up with them.

Anyway. This book turned out to be perfect for that purpose, and a completely engrossing read in its own right!

Now, "Serpico" is one of those names I've hazily known about my whole life. Here's what I knew: 1. it was the title of a movie starring Al Pacino (that I have never seen). 2. Serpico was a cop.

And that is it.

But then, I saw a trailer for a new documentary about Serpico, titled Frank Serpico.

And I thought, wait a second, Frank Serpico was a WHISTLEBLOWER?

I am beyond fascinated by whistleblowers. I am, as a matter of fact, a whistleblower groupie. I don't know what this says about my personality, because I think whistleblowers are by and large really complex and really interesting and really important people, but I think they can also be very difficult people.

So immediately I thought, I've got to read the book Serpico: The Cop Who Defied the System*, by Peter Maas (on which the Pacino/Sidney Lumet movie was based). It's a straightforward account of Serpico's youth, desire to be a cop, journey to become a cop, and then his growing realization, after he became a cop, that nearly every other cop in New York City at that time (the 1960s and 70s) was either accepting bribes and payoffs from gamblers, organized crime types, and drug traffickers. Even the cops who weren't taking payouts were going along by acting like nothing was wrong, and this went all the way up to the highest ranks of the department.

Until, that is, Frank Serpico came along. And for a long time he tried to do his own thing, but eventually it became impossible. So he started trying to go to his superiors with his stories, and they were not interested. Then he went to someone in the mayor's office, and they weren't really interested, either, because the 1960s and 70s were not exactly happy sunshine-y times in the history of NYC, and the mayor kind of needed to keep the police department on his side. So then Serpico went to someone in the press, and of course then the shit pretty much hit the fan. And very shortly after that Serpico himself got shot in the face in a drug bust gone wrong, about which incident there is still some question about whether it was a set-up to get him killed or just an honest shitshow.

I just opened this book to find a good quote to use, and honestly, it's the type of book that's compelling wherever you dip into it. Here's the beginning of chapter two, which is the first page I flipped to:

"When he was shot, Serpico was a member of a plainclothes detail in the Police Department. Plainclothesmen are actually patrolmen working, as the name indicates, out of uniform and on special assignment, usually in narcotics, prostitution, or gambling. While corruption in the police force was by no means limited to those on plainclothes duty, the temptations and opportunities it afforded for graft had always been especially high--in narcotics because of the huge profits at stake, and in prostitution and gambling not only because of the money, but because they were two areas of illegal activity that a large segment, if not a majority, of the public constantly demanded." (p. 21.)

It was a great book. Read it. Anyone seen the movie with Al Pacino? I'm going to watch that too (as well as the documentary linked to above, when it's available on DVD).

*Evidently I never knew about this subtitle, which kind of tells you that he was a whistleblower.


A tale of two novels.

Swimming lessonsI got and read Claire Fuller's novel Swimming Lessons because somewhere I read that it was a good book about a marriage (or, as the jacket copy promises, it explores "the mysterious truths of a passionate and troubled marriage"). I have been burned by this interest before, but I almost always look at novels and nonfiction that are primarily about marriage.

And it was okay. I read the whole thing, and I wondered vaguely about the lives of the characters, but when I finished it I didn't have a real strong feeling about it one way or the other. At points I was unsure what had happened, or what the author meant by some things, and, as I told Mr. CR, "You know, in all of modern literary fiction lately I feel like I am just guessing at what happened or what the author meant." And I do not like that feeling. Sure, I'm a lazy reader, but sometimes I just like to feel like I get the whole story the author is telling.

I was almost off of novels for a while, but then I remembered that I had Jami Attenberg's new novel All Grown Up home from the library. I almost took it back sight unseen, but then I remembered my reading experience that had been her earlier novel, The Middlesteins. I read it during one of my non-blogging periods, but I should have written about it later: I loved it.

So I read the first fifty pages or so of All Grown Up, and I was confused a bit by who was talking and who the names at the heads of the chapters were referring to (see earlier: I am a lazy reader), and I thought, well, it's no The Middlesteins. But I felt I owed it to Jami Attenberg to stick with it.

All grown upAnd somewhere in the middle it did two things: First, it kicked me in the heart. Then, it made me do that thing I do where I don't really sob, but I pause from the text and I put my hand to my face and I look around a bit and I try not to cry.

Look, it's not a big profound novel about love.* It doesn't particularly reveal any truths, passionate or otherwise. But, goddamnit, do I love Jami Attenberg's characters. They're nothing like me, particularly her main female characters, and yet I LOVE them. I love their voices, which sometimes say such simple and heartbreaking things. Because you know what? Life is kind of heartbreaking in its simplicity. It is hard to get along with people. It is hard to care for people with sicknesses. It is hard to not know what you want and have weaknesses and it is very, very hard to get old. It is hard, in short, to be all grown up.

Just read it, okay? How can you not like a main character like Andrea Bern, who has a number of (arguably) unhealthy relationships with men, and yet can say things like this after a tryst with a lover:

"That was two years ago. I haven't seen Alex since, though sometimes we text, and once he asked me to send him a naked picture, and I laughed and laughed, so for that I thank him, because who doesn't need a good laugh? (p. 51.)

Because yes, that should be the response of all women when asked to send a man a naked picture. Laughter.

And here she is, conversing with her therapist:

"ME: My mother is leaving me and moving to New Hampshire.

THERAPIST: And how does that make you feel?

ME: It makes me feel like she doesn't love me.

THERAPIST: Hasn't she proved to you she loves you already?

ME: How?

THERAPIST: By caring for you, nurturing you, supporting you, raising you to be the person you are today.

ME: All of that comprises a rational argument but can I just ask you a question?

THERAPIST: Sure.

ME: Whose side are you on, anyway?" (p. 65.)

So: a tale of two novels. The first made me say "meh" and the second made me re-start it all over again when I had just finished it, and I NEVER do that. Go read something, anything, by Jami Attenberg. Okay? Okay.

*And it's not perfect, but mostly its flaws are tiny and forgivable. Its cover, though, which looks like Chick Lit Covers 101? I hate the cover.


A serviceable read: Heads in Beds.

Okay, I really need to start writing down what book suggestions I get from where. I know I chose the book Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality from someone's blog, but now I can't remember where I found it. Anyone out there remember posting about this?

Heads in bedsIt is exactly what its title promises: a tell-all memoir from a long-time hotel employee, who worked in a variety of positions from valet attendant in a luxury hotel in New Orleans, to housekeeping management in that same establishment, to being front desk staff in a Manhattan hotel that he calls "The Bellevue." It's fairly rough and ready, in story and in tone. Here's how he was welcomed to his daytime shift on the desk by the bellmen, after being promoted from the overnight staff:

"The bellmen were the first to intimidate.

'Listen very closely to me, FNG [Fucking New Guy]. I see you handing guests their own keys, I'll stab you. You don't ask them shit. You call 'front' and hand the keys to a bellman. Let them tell me to my face they can take their own luggage and my baby girl has to starve. I catch you handing them keys, I figure you're the one who wants my baby girl to starve. In which case I will find out what train you take home and collapse your throat as soon as you step into your borough.'

New York pep talk number two! The first, from my roommate in Brooklyn, promising to throw me out if I didn't make rent, seemed like a pillow fight in comparison.'" (p. 103.)

So yeah. It's a lot of stories like that (although you should know that the author eventually became pretty tight with the bellmen, as he became pretty good at handing lodgers over to them with the personal touch, increasing the tipping all around), along with a few tips on how to improve your own hotel stays. I can't say that most of the tips will be that helpful to me, as I don't really want to eat things out of the minibar, even for free (it is important to note, though, that if there are wrong minibar charges on your bill, you should pipe up, as desk staff know nobody can actually tell what you've eaten out of the minibar and will remove the charges fairly easily) and I rarely stay at the types of hotels where upgrades are going to do a whole lot for me.

It was a quick read, somewhat informative, interesting enough to keep me reading the whole thing, but in the end I found it unsatisfying. Perhaps because there was absolutely nothing in the way of deeper thought or reflection here about how weird it is that we all go to hotels, and trust people we don't know to create our key cards, to clean the pillows on which we put our faces and the glasses out of which we drink. Among many other things. And I say this as someone who LOVES staying in hotels. Seriously. I traveled a few times for work and there was nothing I loved better than flopping on a hotel bed and turning the TV on to "Law and Order" (an episode of which is always on, somewhere, sometime), so I'd have been happy to hear any thoughts on the intimacy of helping hundreds of strangers bed down every night. I don't know what I wanted here, really. I just wanted something a little more.

I was also a bit annoyed with this opening statement:

"To protect the guilty and the innocent alike, I have deconstructed all hotels and rebuilt them into personal properties, changed all names, and shredded all personalities and reattached them to shreds from other personalities, creating a book of amalgams that, working together, establish, essentially, a world of truth. I mean, damn, I even change my own name."

And he did. Jacob Tomsky is his name, and he became, throughout this narrative, "little Tommy Jacobs." Why? Anyone else get that?


New York, New York.

So I missed a Helene Hanff book!

I think I had been saving Apple of My Eye, a travel guide/love letter to the city of New York, for a treat, and then just kind of forgot about it. Until this summer, when I had a Hanff mini-revival, re-reading all her books and getting Apple of My Eye. What's great about this guide to NYC is that it was written in 1978--how's that for a mind-blower? When the city was broke and seedy and down on its luck. Spoiler alert: Helene still loved her city.

But here's the weird part. Here's what I was reading one night:

"One thing about the World Trade Center: you don't need a map to find it. With our eyes on the severe twin towers jutting skyward, we steered a zigzag course through winding streets until we came to an intersection seething with traffic, across the street from it. As we waited for a green light, we looked across the street and saw, in front of the Trade Center and blocking the entrance to it, cement mixers, mounds of earth, piles of wooden boards and the rest of the construction mess out of which the Center's landscaped plaza will have emerged by the time you read this.

'You know the problem with this book?' I said to Patsy [a friend of Helene's, with whom she was exploring the city to do the research for this book]. 'I want to write about the Trade Center Plaza and I can't because it isn't there yet. I want to write about Radio City Music Hall and I'm not sure it'll still be there when the book comes out. No other city on earth has such a mania for tearing down the old to build the new--which I approve of. My theory is that since New Yorkers mostly come here from somewhere else, they have no interest in the city's past; they come with big plans for its future. And on a narrow strip of island, you can't build the future without tearing down the past first; there isn't room for both. But it's a headache when you're writing a book about it." (pp. 52-53.)

And then, as she and her friend looked out from the 107th-floor observatory, there's this:

"And suddenly, irrationally, I gloried in the highhanded, high-flying, damn-your-eyes audacity that had sent the Trade Center's twin columns rising impudently above the skyline at the moment when New York was declared to be dying, and so deep in debt it couldn't afford workers to dispose of the Center's trash, police its plaza or put out its fires." (pp. 55-56.)

So I paused and thought about that, and then I thought about the date. What are the odds that I would be reading exactly that chapter of this book at 11 p.m. on September 10? WEIRD.


Still a sucker for work memoirs: Steve Osborne's The Job.

Some books I'm just predisposed to like. So, even when I come across a not spectacular example of the genre, I still can't help liking it.

A case in point is Steve Osborne's The Job. I was very intrigued to see this title over at Unruly Reader's blog,* so got it right away. And it didn't really disappoint; I really like the look into others' daily routines. Sometimes, though, this author exuded a "streetwise" masculinity that wasn't really to my taste:

"I grew up in a no-nonsense blue-collar neighborhood where toughness was valued as much as, or more than, anything else. And in that neighborhood, the old man reigned as king. You either loved him or feared him, and he really didn't care which it was. He was also the neighborhood problem solver. Once some pervert had flashed one of the neighborhood teenage girls and it was brought to his attention. This was the old days, so not everything was adjudicated with an arrest. When I asked him how he handled it, the only thing he said was 'He'll never do that again.' I'm not quite sure what that meant, but the guy was never seen or heard from in my neighborhood again." (p. 3.)

Now, all of that said, if you're looking for a solid cop memoir with some unbelievable stories (keeping two suspects from stabbing each other right in front of him; buying someone he'd just arrested a hot dog; following someone into a subway tunnel without paying much attention to when the next train was coming) you will not be disappointed here.

Have a great weekend, all. And try not to do anything that will get you arrested--not every cop out there will buy you a hot dog.

*Please go read her review; it's better than this one.


Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue: Skip it.

I wasn't all that bothered by all of the media pieces accusing Wednesday Martin of playing fast and loose with her facts in her bestselling memoir Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir. I was more bothered by the fact that it just wasn't that interesting.

Perhaps it's just a subject-matter problem. How interesting can you make stories of parenting and living among extreme wealth on Manhattan's Upper East Side? Doesn't anyone with a TV or any basic cultural knowledge about New York City (or even just extremely wealthy people) know that Alpha Moms and Dads with a lot of money compete viciously among themselves for places for their children in the right preschools and schools, not to mention living in the "right" door-manned buildings and carrying the right Birkin bags? Martin tries to give an anthropological spin to this memoir--throwing in Anthropology Lite tidbits here and there to explain dominance behavior like other women aggressively "charging" her on the sidewalk, or the dangers of "going native"--but nothing is noted, footnoted, or really explored in any real in-depth way to make that tactic any more than a gimmick to sell this book.

The book did periodically give me a chuckle (but not really for the right reasons); I enjoyed this quote, when Martin is talking about trying to sell their townhouse downtown: "I was forever making it look pristine and then rushing out the door so a broker and client could "view" it." (p. 25.)

Now I don't know if we should blame Martin or her editor for that one, but all I could think was, come on, Wednesday. We sell houses in the Midwest too; you don't really have to put "view" in quotes for us.

In one of the final chapters, Martin actually does do some poignant writing about losing a baby while in her second (nearing her third) trimester, and nobody who has ever had a baby or lost a baby will be unaffected by it. But even then she reminds you that the problems of the rich are entirely different from those of the not rich:

"She [the expected third child that they lost] was a burden, in a way, this baby, taxing our space and stealing the older one's crib and requiring private school and college tuition and a renovation and four or five more years of a full-time nanny." (p. 207.)

I'm sorry for her loss, but those aren't really worries [oh, those full-time nannies, they really do cost!] to which I can relate. Skip this one.


Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker: True crime you simply must read.

I know, I know, nobody really wants to read True Crime.

And yet, people do. I do. And when I come across True Crime books that I think you should read, even if you have an aversion to the genre, I feel I have to tell you about them.

One such book is Robert Colker's Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.

The book originally began life as an article in New York Magazine, about the Long Island serial killer and his victims. It's a complex story, making it a complex book: Kolker opens the narrative by describing five of the killer's victims (the four whose bodies were found on a New York barrier island off the shore of Long Island, in similar burlap sacks, and another victim, whom authorities can't confirm was or was not killed by the same perpetrator) and their lives, most of which were filled with details of complex and abusive family relationships, struggles to find "honest" work, eventual turns to escort services and prostitution to make money, addiction problems, and a host of unstable relationships. I found this part of the book the most challenging one to read; all of the women advertised their services as escorts under different names, so keeping their stories straight was a bit of a challenge.

Kolker structures his narrative a bit differently than most True Crime narratives, which tend to be very straightforward and story-driven. In this book he starts with the character portraits and narratives of the victims, and from there he works outward to consider their family circumstances and how their bodies were eventually found. In the latter half of the book, he examines the community life in the gated community of Oak Beach, on Jones Island, near which the remains (and the remains of several other unidentified individuals) were found, focusing particularly on the residents who have come to be viewed with suspicion by other residents, the police, and the media.

It's a challenging read, and it's a really sad read, but I still think you should look into it. Just to look through this window of how so many people (women, in particular) live their lives constantly at the edge of despair and bad luck and no good choices is educational, and important. Here's one thing that struck me about the book: Kolker (and many others) make the point that serial killers often target prostitutes and other individuals at the edge of society, because they have such tenuous connections and are often "not missed." To me this always made it sound like sex workers had no connections. But what is really clear in this narrative is that they DO have connections to other people--a ton of them. They've got parents and stepparents; siblings and step-siblings; often they have babies or children of their own; they've got friends; they often have pimps or boyfriends or guys who drive them to jobs. The greater problem is that those connections often exert pressures of their own: at least one of these victims was working to give her mother and family money; they are trying to support and raise children, and this job seems to offer the most pay for the fewest hours; they develop drug problems because of friends and pimps and dealers they know, and because johns often request drug use at the same time as escort services. So they're not really alone--they're just with all the (arguably) wrong people, all the time.

For some reason that gave me pause.

I also liked Kolker's writing style. It's direct. And I thought one of his conclusions was about as much as you could hope for:

"The demand for commercial sex will never go away. Neither will the Internet; they're stuck with each other. It may no longer even matter anymore whether the sale of sex among consenting adults is wrong or right, immoral or empowering. What's clear is that no good can come from pretending that the people who participate in prostitution don't exist. That, after all, is what the killer was counting on." (p. 381.)

Yes, it's hard to read. It's a heartbreaking story, and a heartbreaking book. You should read it.


Humans of New York

Humans of New York
by Brandon Stanton
Powells.com

Here is a book I love: Humans of New York. The photography is beautiful, the blurbs given about the people in the photographs (quotes from the people pictured, sometimes) short, and perfect.

Don't just visit the website; it's not the same experience. (The website has too much going on for me to follow, and the blurbs are all longer.) Look at the book, slowly. It reminded me it had been way too long since I've enjoyed a book of photography.

That is all.


March Memoir Madness: More Than Conquerors

I really, REALLY enjoyed Megan Hustad's slim memoir More Than Conquerors: A Memoir of Lost Arguments. My enjoyment was made all the more sweet because I did not expect to like it much at all.

I do not read a lot of books on religion, and I do not typically enjoy religious or evangelical memoirs (although, yes, I continue to be charmed by Anne Lamott). But in this book about Hustad's childhood spent traveling with her parents, who worked as religious missionaries (and the book itself is filled with Bible quotes and religious references), the religion itself seems almost beside the point. I didn't expect that, and because of that I found my enjoyment of this title sort of snuck up on me.

As noted, Hustad went with her parents at a very young age to live on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, where her father worked for the Christian evangelical Trans World Radio organization. Later on, the family transferred to Amsterdam, where again, her father tried to find his place in the world as a religious missionary. Eventually her parents left missionary work and they returned to Minnesota, and when she left home, Hustad ended up in New York City, working in the publishing field. It's quite the journey(s), to say the least, and because the memoir is only about 225 pages long, it moves along pretty quickly.

I think I enjoyed this one because Hustad's descriptions of her parents make them sound almost entirely unlike Christian evangelical missionaries. On Bonaire, her parents threw "fellowship" parties, where the kids shared how they named the geckos that got into the house: "Not everyone felt that naming geckos after godly women and men was appropriate or a good example to set for your children. Ankles crossed. My father chuckled. Anyone who laughed sincerely was invited back once a week." (p. 47.) In Amsterdam their mother took them on a drive through the red-light district. Back in Minneapolis, her father "resolved not to put a Jesus fish on the back of the Subaru. If anyone asked why not, he said, he would simply say that sadly, our car had not accepted Jesus Christ as its savior." (p. 132.)

Come on. That last one's funny. In all, I wouldn't have minded learning even more about Hustad's family dynamics, and her parents' religious convictions (I might have found that more interesting than her continuing coming-of-age in New York City, but I get how that was important to her personal narrative). But in all? An unexpected read, with some good food for thought. Not something I often find in "religious" memoirs.


Another Helene Hanff stunner.

Please note: For all you Helene Hanff fans out there, remember that Stacy Horn (an author I think of as a modern-day Hanff, with her fantastic writing skills, her joy for life, and her residence in New York City) put up a walking tour video of the places Helene lived in New York. It's awesome.

The bad news is, I am all out of "new to me" Helene Hanff books to read.*

The good news is, the book in question, the one I had been saving to read for last, was wonderful.

As you know, I love Helene Hanff. (Actually, I think I am in love WITH her. It's a small distinction but an important one.) After I first read 84, Charing Cross Road and The Duchess of Bloosmbury, I started making my way through her other books, but slowly, so I wouldn't run out of them all at once. But now, having read her memoir Underfoot in Show Business, I am officially out of Hanff treats for myself.

But it was worth it. I checked it out from the library, and the very first thing I enjoyed about it was its delicious old book smell. You know, the slightly sweet, pulpy odor that most books of a certain age, particularly if they've been living around other books, get. And then when I read it, it turned out to be a delightful journey through Helene's early professional life, when she moved from Pennsylvania to New York City to try and become a playwright. This is how it opens:

"You may have noticed that this book was not written by Moss Hart. It's a book about show business, where fame is the stock in trade, and it's written by a name you never heard of and probably can't pronounce. There is a simple explanation for this.

Each year, hundreds of stage-struck youngsters arrive in New York to crash the theatre, firmly convinced they're destined to be famous Broadway stars or playwrights. One in a thousand turns out to be Moss Hart.

This book is about the other 999. By one of them." (p. 11)

Of course, this book is old. It's dated. Frankly, I don't even know who Moss Hart is. But Helene plows right in, in her forthright manner, and tells you how she grew up loving the theatre (as did the rest of her family), how she attended college briefly and then had to drop out to take a job (where she spent a lot of her time writing plays), and how she eventually moved to New York City and tried to make it in the business. And once she's in New York, well, she never slows down. She describes trying to find an agent, how actors and actresses get cast, and all other manner of behind-the-Broadway-scenes action; but perhaps the most enjoyable bits are those in which she and her friend Maxine make their way in the big city, contriving to see Broadway shows for free and trying to find apartments which include some kind of kitchen space or privileges.

This should come as no surprise: I loved it. Even when I didn't get the references, even when I had no idea what she was talking about. I just find Helene so inspiring. Here was this woman who was never rich, was mostly quite poor, as a matter of fact, but she lived life (mostly) where she wanted to live it, in her beloved New York City, and she seemed always, ALWAYS to be having a good time. I'm sure a lot of her life wasn't easy, but you certainly wouldn't know it from her prose. I enjoyed this bit, too, when she described herself, fairly early on in the book:

"I had a dumpy little figure, and the clothes I bought off the sale racks in Wanamaker's basement didn't improve it. I wore glasses, I had straight, stringy, mouse-colored hair which I could afford to have cut or set very often, and I had as much poise as any young girl who's never been anywhere or done anything and most of the time isn't exactly sure who she is." (p. 14.)

She's not describing herself very glamorously, and yet, you get the feeling, even when she was unsure, Helene didn't really mind being Helene. At least that's the impression I get. The other overall impression I always get from her books is one of joy: what joy she brought to life, and what joy she got from it. And what joy she's brought to my life. I wish she'd written at least a hundred more books.

*Well, she wrote a few children's history books too, that I might still track down.


Nonfiction Authors You Should Know: Stacy Horn

One of my favorite nonfiction authors (and bloggers, as it so happens) is Stacy Horn. She's the author of an eclectic mix of books, from memoir (Waiting for My Cats to Die) to investigative history (Unbelievable: Investigations Into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and Other Unseen Phenomena, from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory) to True Crime* (The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City's Cold Case Squad). She blogs at http://www.echonyc.com/~horn/stacy/, and her posts are always a charming mix of news of her pet kitties; snippets about her reading, TV watching, and publishing exploits; and gorgeous, gorgeous photographs of New York City. I am very fond of her books because they cover a wide variety of topics, she takes fact-checking seriously, and her writing is always very, very sincere. Let's put it this way: she's no bestselling hack.**

In July she has a new book coming out called Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing with Others, and I am getting just so excited waiting for it. Partly because I like singing, but more because I just love reading Horn's writing.This new book also just made the American Booksellers Association July 2013 Indie Next List, so I hope that helps more readers to find her.***

*And not just any old True Crime; while opinions differed on her book when we featured it here as part of a Book Menage discussion, I consider this a True Crime classic.

**I'm looking at you, Thomas Friedman and Bill O'Reilly.

***She also just did an interview with NPR. I'm so glad she's getting some good press attention. She's earned it.


Have I maxed out on memoirs?

Over the course of the past month I've slowly been munching my way through Rosie Schaap's well-received memoir Drinking with Men: A Memoir.

I never really got to the point where I had to keep reading it, but for a while it seems I haven't been finding much at the library and I couldn't find much other nonfiction around the house I was interested in, so when I needed to read, I'd just go back to it and read another chapter. I don't know why, really. It's not a bad book, and it's certainly not bad as far as memoirs (which can, I find, vary widely in quality) go. Feeling pretty ambivalent about it both during and after reading it has left me with just the one question:

Am I done reading memoirs?

Could be. For a long time I read a lot of them. For a long time a lot of them have been published. But for whatever reasons, it's also been a long time since I found one that really lit me up.

This is all not really fair to Schaap's book. There's nothing earth-shattering here, but the author seems to know her way around a sentence and is also likable enough, although I almost didn't make it past her early chapters, wherein she described dropping out of high school and following the Grateful Dead around.* In later chapters she settles into a nice pattern of describing bars she has loved and the drinking companions (almost exclusively male) whom she has loved within them. Perhaps one reason it left me cold-ish was because her descriptions of the bars themselves are much more vivid and loving than her descriptions, really, of her drinking companions (which even include a man whose friendship affected her life very deeply). I really do think "Bars I've Loved" would have been a more accurate, if not a catchier, title.

There's some insight into her friendships with men, and with bar culture, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for. I have my own history of getting along well with guys**, which is a painful history, because once you become an old married lady with a kid, guy friends are impossible to come by. I miss them and rather thought this memoir would have more to say on the actual dynamics of such friendships, but it didn't. Perhaps when I find a memoir that does that I'll have found one that once again makes me want to read more memoirs.

*Here she is describing her experiences following the Dead around: "We were mostly decent if slightly wayward kids who, for a variety of reasons, needed to leave the people who had raised us and who, many of us felt, had failed to understand us, and make a family of our own...We drank and danced, bartered bootlegs, got high and hung out, lived in vans and slept in cars under piles of stripy Mexican blankets in need of a good washing; we gave one another scabies and sometimes worse, and sometimes money, and often pot, and really whatever we had, sold trinkets and tofu stew, and for the most part, though not always, looked after one another." (p. 29.) It's vivid writing, but just the thought of getting scabies and sleeping in cars with strangers, oh my lord, it is NOT for me.

**A guy friend in high school once told me that gossiping and eating candy with me made him feel like he was back in fifth grade again, in the best possible way (we had a total joke class called "Media Film" together, we just shared candy and talked through the entire semester while ostensibly watching and critiquing movies). I still think it's one of the nicest things anyone's ever said to me.


Fiction Interlude: Tepper Isn't Going Out

Well, I said I was probably going to re-read Tepper Isn't Going Out, when Calvin Trillin won the 2012 Thurber Prize for Humor, and I did. This marks the third or fourth time I've read this novel, and it never fails to make me smile.*

Murray Tepper is a simple man**, who asks simply to be left alone as he sits in his parked car and reads the paper. After all, he's in a legal spot and he's put money in the meter. So how does he become a magnet for the city's citizens, who start to show up wanting to discuss their problems and life in general with him? How does he become the target of the city's megalomaniac mayor? It'll only take you 213 pages to find out, and I think you'll enjoy the ride. Do give it a try; here's a quote from the first page to give you the flavor of the thing:

"Murray Tepper looked up from his newspaper to see what was happening. Tepper was sitting behind the wheel of a dark blue Chevrolet Malibu that was parked on the uptown side of Forty-third street, between Fifth and Sixth. Across the street, an argument was going on between an intense young man in a suit and the peddler who set up a stand on Forty-third Street every day to sell apples and bananas and peaches to office workers. Tepper had seen them go at it before. The young man was complaining about the price that the peddler charged for a single banana. The peddler was defending himself in an accent that Tepper couldn't place even by continent." (p. 3.)

This year I'm thankful for great paragraphs like that. And a great many other things besides, including my many friends to converse with here. Happy Thanksgiving, all.

*And also to make me hungry for New York deli food, not to mention hungry to visit New York City again in general. Although I am aware (and sad that) they are having a rough autumn in New York.

**Or is he? Read the book to find out.


Nonfiction I Didn't Finish: October 2012 edition.

It has come to my attention recently that I just simply no longer have the time to finish every nonfiction book I start. This realization has been a long time in coming, and it still bugs me. But what can you do?

Well, you can offer posts explaining what you're putting down and why. For the month of October, these were the books I picked up for some reason or other, tried a few pages or chapters of, and then just put down (or, more accurately, took back to the library):

Steven Rinella: Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter

This one hurts me, because I LOVE Steven Rinella. I totally enjoyed his book The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine, and I even read and liked American Buffalo, which I expected to be totally bored by--I just like Rinella's writing, and it doesn't hurt that he's a nice little piece of eye candy.* This new book is an examination of his childhood and development as a hunter, and his continuing lifestyle of killing the meat his family eats, even though he lives in Brooklyn. There's a great section of pictures in the middle, all of which I perused, and the writing is good (I still managed to read about 50 pages, even though I knew I probably wouldn't stick with the whole thing). But I'm just not interested in hunting (as such) and never will be. I am a meat eater and am all for knowing more about where your food comes from, but I grew up on a farm and have actually taken part in the butchering** of animals, so I already KNOW, trust me. Oh, that is something else to mention: don't give this one to readers you suspect might be squeamish about the details of butchering animals--Rinella doesn't skimp on any of the details.

Janet Groth, The Receptionist

Groth's memoir relates her many years of service as a receptionist at The New Yorker magazine. I just couldn't get into her story, and found her voice kind of boring, although I did read the chapter about her and Joseph Mitchell (the author of Up In the Old Hotel, and an author I love).

One funny anecdote Groth related was from her initial interview with Miss Daise Terry (who was in charge of secretarial personnel): "She said, 'Now, as a midwesterner, you have better sense than the Westchester County and Connecticut girls who come through this office. I always have to take them in hand and give them a stern talking-to about their behavior and conduct." p. 3. Ha. But the amusing bits were just too few and far between to keep me reading this one.

RothbartDavy Rothbart, My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays

Just couldn't get past the first essay, where he and his brother take advantage of phone calls to their deaf mother, which they have to interpret for her, although she has her laugh at them in the end. I've read mixed reviews of this one, and just couldn't get into it, although I enjoy Rothbart's FOUND! collections. Also: I think the publicity photo of him at the right is just ridiculous.

So: My question for you is, has anyone out there read any of these, and care to share your opinions?

*Damn--later pictures in the book reveal both his wedding ring and his wife. What Mr. CR would make of my habit of scanning left hands for wedding rings, I don't know.

**"Butchering" is such a scary word. Please be assured my family did all they could to make the process as quick and humane for the animals (if not for us--it's hard work, and scary, when all of the members of your family are in one place, tired, punchy, and holding sharp knives) as possible.


The cool customer strikes again.

You know I am a Joan Didion fan.

BlueSo of course I have been waiting for her latest memoir, Blue Nights, for some time. And, as much as you can't be disappointed by the terribly sad story of a mother losing her only daughter when said daughter is only 39 years old (and little more than a year after the same author lost her husband), I was not disappointed.

Didion won the National Book Award for her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, which was about the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and her grief in its aftermath. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and in it, she tells the concurrent story of the health struggles of their adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, who entered the hospital with pneumonia shortly before Dunne's death, and would eventually spend nearly two years in and out of hospital intensive care units with increasingly severe health problems. Quintana died in 2005, and in this memoir Didion revives her most powerful memories about her, while circling around the topic of her own aging and increasing frailty.

The title of this post comes from a line in The Year of Magical Thinking, when one of the medical personnel at the hospital where Dunne was taken and eventually pronounced dead describes her as a "cool customer." This is, in fact, what I love about Didion: even at her saddest, when dealing with the most personal and devastating of losses, she is never, ever sentimental. By this I don't mean that she doesn't care. Anything but. Consider this anecdote, a memory of Quintana walking to school when they lived in California, told from both John's and Joan's point of view (actually, this is a bit of a cheat, since it's the text John wrote down from his wedding toast to Quintana, but it's Didion who saved the text and has decided where to put it in her story):

"So I'd [John] take Q to school, and she'd walk down this steep hill. All the kids wore uniforms--Quintana wore a plaid jumper and a white sweater, and her hair--she was a towhead in that Malibu sun--her hair was in a a ponytail. I would watch her disappear down that hill, the Pacific a great big blue background, and it was as beautiful as anything I'd ever seen. So I said to Joan, 'You got to see this, babe.' The next morning Joan came with us, and when she saw Q disappear down that hill she began to cry." (p. 29.)

I love everything about that story. I love how it shows the depth of love for Quintana that both her parents had, but how their reactions to her beauty and the beauty of the situation differed. At the risk of sounding sexist, I think that right there is the essence of the difference between the experience of being a father and of being a mother.*

The next part I'll quote IS Didion's writing, about the title of the book:

"In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue...During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. AS the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called 'Blue Nights' because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning." (p. 4.)

It's a beautiful book. I've done a horrible job of describing it, but you can read some much better reviews of it here and here. You should also know that it's a short read, but a draining one: don't read it when you're already emotionally fragile (I did, and it led to some crying, which I try to avoid now, because it makes my eyes so tired the next day).

 *I could explore this subject endlessly but this post is already too long.


Calvin Trillin.

TrillinI was so, so excited to get Calvin Trillin's new book, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff, at the library.

But somehow when I got it home it just wasn't what I was expecting. It's a collection of Trillin's humorous pieces from the many places where he's been published: The New Yorker, The Nation, in books, etc. It's organized thematically; about five to seven pieces in chapters with such headings as "Biographically Speaking," "High Society and Just Plain Rich People," "Life Among the Literati," "Twenty Years of Pols--One Poem Each," etc. Because they're written by Calvin Trillin, all the pieces are funny. That wasn't the problem. I liked this bit, in which he suggests one of his wife Alice's economic suggestions:

"The true Alice Tax would probably inspire what the medical profession sometimes calls 'harumph palpitations' in those senators who used the word 'confiscatory' to describe a surcharge that would have brought the highest possible tax on incomes over a million dollars a year to 41 percent. To state the provisions of the Alice Tax simply, which is the only way Alice allows them to be stated, it calls for this: After a certain level of income, the government would simply take everything. When Alice says confiscatory, she means confiscatory...

Alice believes that at a certain point an annual income is simply more than anybody could possibly need for even a lavish style of living. She is willing to discuss what that point is. In her more flexible moments, she is even willing to listen to arguments about which side of the line a style of living that included, say, a large oceangoing boat should fall on. But she insists that there is such a thing as enough--a point of view that separates her from the United States Senate." (From 1990; pp. 109-110.)

The individual pieces were good, but for some reason I found the thematic ordering somewhat hard to follow. It threw me to learn that many of the pieces were published in the eighties or early nineties, and were sometimes about topics I just wasn't very familiar with. I think I would have preferred it in chronological order, so I could get a feeling for the context; or if the pieces' dates had been listed at their start so I knew "when" I was.