New York

Photo of the Hotel Chelsea by Christopher Macsurak used under a Creative Commons license.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010).
In 1967, at the age of 21, Smith left her family’s home in rural New Jersey and moved to New York City to find a new life.  She found herself hungry, lonely, jobless and poor, but she also found a friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two were soon living together in Brooklyn, eking out a living as artists – if not quite starving, then not far from it.  Their lives and careers slowly progressed, and they moved to Manhattan (first to the Hotel Chelsea) and ran in circles with the likes of William Burroughs and Sam Shepherd and Janis Joplin and Allen Ginsburg, and the world was still young. Eventually they become known as Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, but this memoir is about those days before they were famous, and it captures New York at an epic moment four decades now past.  Above all, it is a elegy for Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.

Here is Smith’s site. Here is Wikipedia’s page about her. Smith talked about the book on NPR’s Fresh Air. It won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Spinner has an excerpt. Gerry posts some as well. And here is an excerpt accompanied by a mariachi band. Janet Maslin (New York Times) says it captures a moment when Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, perfectly bohemian and completely unknown. Edmund White (The Guardian) says it brings together all the elements that made New York so exciting in the 1970s. Laura Miller (Salon) says it’s utterly lacking in irony or sophisticated cynicism. Elizabeth Hand (Washington Post) says Smith evokes Manhattan’s last great bohemian age so precisely that one can smell the Nescafé boiling on a hot plate. Tom Carson (New York Times) calls it the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that any alumnus has committed to print. Gina Myers (Frontier Psychiatrist) says its New York is one where everyone seems to be somebody. Carmela Ciuraru (San Francisco Chronicle) calls it one of the best memoirs of recent years: inspiring, sad, wise and beautifully written. Kate Neary (The Thrill of the Chaise) finished it in tears. Crystal was in tears before the first chapter. Christian Williams (The A.V. Club) says it’s rife with snapshots of ‘70s New York cool at its grittiest and most seductive. Roy Edroso (The Village Voice) says it pulls you in, like with Smith’s clarinet experiments, not so much because the thing is well-played but by the force of devotional fervor. Spacebeer says it will melt even the coldest of hearts. Luigi Scacciante recommends it to those interested in art or love or the human condition. Emily Temple (Flavorwire) says Smith is incredibly successful at immersing the reader in a New York where Allen Ginsburg buys you sandwiches and you move to sit in Andy Warhol’s still-warm chair. Nick Kent (The Sunday Times) says Smith tells her story with honesty and elegance. rundangerously calls it one of the best memoirs he has read. Greg Milner (Bookforum) says it’s a vivid portrayal of a bygone New York that could support a countercultural artistic firmament. Michael Horovitz (The Telegraph) calls it a refreshingly clear-eyed chronicle of a counterculture often over-mythologised. But teadevotee says it’s not so much a story as Smith’s contribution to her own myth.  Elizabeth Periale (xoxoxoe) notes that Smith has a real sense of New York history. Luke Storms collected the artists mentioned by Smith. Jude Rogers (New Statesman) says it’s essentially a love story. Beth Fish calls it surprisingly tender and moving. Erin Lee Carr gleaned some things. Lee Wind felt more enlightened after reading it, but wasn’t sure how. Mac is still catching up to Smith. Kat says it offers a sneak peek into the inaccessible, narcissistic, pretentious and closed world of popular art, music and words. Adrian McKinty says Smith’s prose is spare and beautiful and her narrative is full of compassion, wonderful details, and humour. Steve A. calls it pure poetry. Tracy Seeley read it on a bus and walked all the way home. Akshay Kapur couldn’t relate to her hardship. John Francisconi calls it a work of alchemy. Stuart Weibel can’t recall a finer testament to love and devotion. Bill regretted misunderstanding what was going on at CBGB’s. Maria Hatling doesn’t want it to end. Nataliejill then heard her music for the first time. Olivia Antsis created a companion blog to the book, and gives (e.g.) context for some of the places mentioned. You can see Smith read from the book here and here. John Siddique posts Smith’s interview on KRCW’s Bookworm show. Here she is on PBS Newshour and interviewed by Charlie Rose. David Ward interviewed her at the National Portrait Gallery in December, 2010. David Pescovitz (Boing Boing) found video of Smith performing in 1976. Angela Carone talked to DJ Claire, who created a sort of soundtrack for the book. Laura Bradley (AnOther) reports that the Hotel Chelsea has been sold and will be closed for a year. Rolling Stone says Smith is writing a sequel.

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Fulton Fish Market
Photo by wallyg used under a Creative Commons license.

Joseph Mitchell, Old Mr. Flood (MacAdam/Cage, 2005).
This volume collects three long stories first published in The New Yorker in the mid-1940s about a retired wrecker named Hugh G. Flood, a 90-year-old determined to live to the age of 115 on fresh seafood and Scotch. Like Flood, Mitchell liked to hang around Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market, where Fulton Street runs into the East River, and he created Flood and his world from what he saw there. The Fulton Fish Market is gone now, moved to the Bronx, but it and an older, blue-collar Manhattan live on in Mitchell’s writing. (Note that the contents of this book are also included in the collection, Up in the Old Hotel.)

Google Books lets you take a look. David Berg has a sort of Mitchell primer. Edward Helmore wrote this obituary for Mitchell for The Independent. Garth Risk Hallberg appreciates Mitchell’s work. Thomas Beller (The Village Voice) says Joycean free-associating talkers populate Mitchell’s work, transplanted to the flinty, vanishing waterfront milieu of early-20th-century Manhattan. Meghan O’Rourke (Slate) calls it a great book, as vivid a portrait of the Fulton Fish Market and of working-class life in New York City as any we have. Luan Gaines calls it an intimate look at a gentleman from the old days. Kristin Dodge found it repetitive and rambling. Maud Newton was not impressed. Hardy Green (Business Week) says it is eminently readable and brings a lost world of New York alive. Bryan Waterman wished his neighborhood on the east side had an oyster bar. Then he found a solution. Here is a gallery of odds and ends Mitchell collected from the Fulton Fish Market. Andrew Jacobs wrote about the last day of the old market and Dan Barry wrote about the death of Gloria Wasserman, a market fixture, both in The New York Times.

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Tito Rodriguez
Image by Thrift Store Addict used under a Creative Commons license.

Oscar Hijuelos, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (Perennial Library, 1990).
In 1949, Nestor and Cesar Castillo arrive in New York City from Havana with the dream of becoming mambo stars. In a few years they do, playing their hit, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul,” on “I Love Lucy” with their hero, Desi Arnaz, and making records with their band, the Mambo Kings. Hijuelos’s novel steps out from Cuban apartments in Harlem to the city’s dance halls and nightclubs. His 1950s in New York City seems so close that its rhythms can be your own, but also fifty years away. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990.

Peter Watrous profiled Hijuelos in The New York Times in 1989. R.Z. Sheppard reviewed it in Time. Margo Jefferson reviewed it in The New York Times. Here is recent news about Hijuelos. The novel hooked Silvio Sirias forever on U.S. Latino and Latina literature. Psesito has some passages, and more in Spanish that I can’t read. Aleathia Drehmer loved it; Kelly Cooper did not like it at all. Here is a history of mambo. And here is Roger Ebert’s review of the 1992 movie.

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Peekskill in October
Photo by Hourman used under a Creative Commons license.

T. Coraghessan Boyle, World’s End (Penguin Books, 1988).
Hard off smashing up his motorcycle, and himself in the process, Walter Van Brunt sets off on a historical investigation of generations of his ancestors in the Hudson River Valley, both his lower class namesakes and the blue-blood Van Warts, all the way back to the Dutch settlers and Mohonk Indians of the 1600s. Boyle’s third novel is dark, comic, sprawling epic which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1988. Set in fictional Peterskill-on-the-Hudson, which may resemble Peekskill, from which Boyle hails.

Here is Boyle’s web site. Here is the page about him on Wikipedia. Gregory Daurer profiled him in 2000 for Salon. Don Swaim’s interviews with him include one from 1987, when the novel was first published. collects three recent interviews, among other things. Kevin Bigger talked to him even more recently still. Benjamin Demott reviewed World’s End in The New York Times. Torg says it’s is knocking the tar out of him. Kristin Dodge wasn’t disappointed.

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The Place
Photo of Buffalo by buffalorose used under a Creative Commons license.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Last Fine Time (Knopf, 1991).
In 1947, when he was 27 years old, Eddie Wenzek, Klinkenborg’s father-in-law, inherited a Polish tavern at 722 Sycamore Street, at the corner of Herman St. on the East Side of Buffalo, in a Polish-American neighborhood. His father had bought the place in 1922, and called it The Thomas Wenzek Restaurant. Eddie Wenzek renamed it “George and Eddie’s” and turned it into a swank nightspot which thrived in the years after World War II, but the good times did not last. In 1970, Wenzek sold the premises and moved to the suburbs. Klinkenborg’s book is a chronicle of the bar during those five decades, and a social history of Buffalo over that time.

Here is Wikipedia’s page about Klinkenborg. David has a picture of 722 Sycamore Street today, as well as a 1940 map. L.S. Klepp reviewed the book for Entertainment Weekly. Here is an anonymous review at eNotes. Carl Lennertz says it’s “one of the great books of all time.” Buffalo resident karen! didn’t like it. Nor did Mr. Muckle. Klinkenborg wrote about Buffalo and the Buffalo Bills in The New York Times in 1991.

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View from Marcy Dam, Adirondacks, NY
Photo from Marcy Dam in the Adirondacks by Robbie’s Photo Art used under a Creative Commons license.

Bill McKibben, Wandering Home (Crown Journeys, 2005).
Recommended by David Armstrong, The San Francisco Chronicle‘s (former) Literate Traveler:

. . . [A] close-up look at the weather, land, water, animals and people in the hardscrabble country of upstate New York’s Adirondacks and the greener, softer land on the other side of Lake Champlain, in Vermont. . . . McKibben goes on walkabout, backpacking from his home in Vermont to his home in New York State. It takes him 16 days. Along the way, he profiles what in a more high-powered report would be called the area’s movers and shakers: creative locals trying to live rooted, ecologically aware lives. They are organic farmers, home winemakers, hometown cafe owners, environmental activists. They inhabit what McKibben calls “America’s most hopeful landscape.” McKibben clearly despises much of modern life, and this can lead him very close to weary sententiousness. At times, he launches into stiff-necked secular sermons. But he usually pulls back in time, and delights with self- deprecating humor and inspired, descriptive writing . . . .

McKibben’s site offers this description of the book and this bio. Casey Ryan Vock reviewed the book for All Points North magazine. George Sibley reviewed it for Gerry Rising reviewed it in ArtVoice. Amanda liked it. So did Eric Promislow. And Donovan posted about it. Listen to National Public Radio’s Alex Chadwick interview McKibben about the book, or watch him in conversation. McKibben wrote this article for Gourmet about trying to eat locally through a Vermont winter.

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McGurk's Suicide Hall
Photo of McGurk’s Suicide Hall by niznoz used under a Creative Commons license.

Luc Sante, Low Life (Vintage, 1992).
A “lost history” of New York’s Lower East Side, from 1840 to 1920. Sante uses personal histories, police reports, popular press, fire records, long-defunct newspapers, and other sources to paint a picture of the city that was there before the twentieth-century, the city that peeks out from behind modern New York now and again. Sante has a particular sympathy for the seedy underside: overflowing tenements, poverty, gas-lit streets, street gangs, the waterfront, brothels, confidence men. This is a cultural history of the New York where people actually lived and worked and died, the city in the background of the official histories and covered over by chamber of commerce advertising.

Stephen Johnson interviewed Sante for The Believer. Billy Miller interviewed Sante in 1998 for Index Magazine. Here is Sante’s blog. In The New York Review of Books, Sante wrote about how New York changed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, an essay that is an afterword to the edition of Low Life published by FSG in 2003. Ken Meier has a long quotation from the book’s Preface. More from, John Hill, and JP Flanigan. Jess Hutch and Jeff used it as a guidebook.

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Washington Square Park
Photo of Washington Square Park by life is a scrapbook used under a Creative Commons license.

Henry James, Washington Square (Penguin Classics, 2007).
In an article in Bloomsbury Magazine about books to read about New York City, Nick Rennison writes:

Henry James’s great subject as a novelist was the meeting and mingling of the old world and the new, the interactions between those brought up in the centuries-long culture of Europe and those brought up amid the brash vitality of nineteenth-century America. . . . One of the few works by him where the action (if that is not too strong a word for the events in a James novel) takes place in the New York of his birth is Washington Square. With a typical Jamesian irony his New York novel is not a celebration of the vigour and potential of city life but a measured, melancholy acknowledgement of the social and romantic restrictions imposed on its central character, Catherine Sloper. Plain and dowdy, Catherine lives with her physician father in genteel Washington Square. . . . [A] sad and understated masterpiece. A particular, and stifling, social stratum of nineteenth-century New York is brought subtly to life.

Here’s one electronic version of the book (there are others). Random House posts this bio of James. Google Book Search has various information, including popular passages and links to reviews. Here is a whole fan site (who knew?). Robert Lashley reviews it at Blogcritics Magazine. Heather is a fan. So is dovegreyreader. Jamie Tallman is a little more equivocal.

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