Y’all, New York has so. Many. Good. Books. I’m only sharing five here, but there are many, many more. New York City is vibrant, and overflows with artists, writers, musicians, and creatives. Before officially arriving in New York on my reading tour of the US, I had already read multiple books set there: The Great Gatsby, The Bell Jar, The Goldfinch, Invisible Man, Bright Young Things...
After visiting New York City with my mom last year, I was excited to officially read New York so I could re-read some of those, and also read new ones that moved onto my to-be-read list because of this reading project. Looking at my map, I realize now that everything I read took place in NYC, which was an oversight. But there’s just so much good stuff set there! And there’s still more to read, like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain.
With so much to read from New York, I narrowed it down to five that show New York City at different points in time and from different points of view: the old and new white rich of the 1920s, the Black Harlem of the great Depression, the Italian Mafia of the same time period (the Mafia controlled the numbers gambling described in My Daddy was a Number Runner), the 1960s and 70s art and music scene (think Chelsea Hotel and Warhol’s Factory), and the modern-day New York of an orphaned adolescent who is taken in by a wealthy Park Avenue family and ends up in the art underworld.
Novel: The Great Gatsby
Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald, lived in NY as a child and later, with Zelda
Setting: 1920s New York City
Despite having read this before, I was caught off guard this time by how good it is, and what a strong statement it makes about the chasm between the rich and the poor: the confidence with which each approaches the world, and how important the age and origin of wealth is. Those who have always been wealthy approach the world with utter confidence, as if they own it (because they do), and they have no understanding for what it’s like to not be privileged.
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…
Gatsby starts his life poor. He gets rich by the wrong means and for the singular reason of impressing Daisy, who was born wealthy and knows no other way of life. Ultimately, Gatsby is too much of a risk to Daisy, regardless of whether she loves him. For people like Tom and Daisy, the comforts of social station and wealth, and the privilege of carelessness that come with them, are worth more in the end than the depth of human relationships. And the Great Gatsby, despite his riches, winds up poor Gatsby in the end.
“They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”
I love that this book is short because that means I can read it over and over again, once every few years, and get new meaning from it. It is wonderfully written. And of course I loved the scene in The Plaza since my mom and I went to the Palm Court there for cocktails and afternoon tea on our trip.
Novel: Daddy Was a Number Runner
Author: Louise Meriwether, grew up in Harlem in the Depression
Setting: 1930s Harlem, NYC
Set during the Depression, Daddy Was a Number Runner is narrated by Francie, a 12-year-old girl growing up in Harlem with no food, and with nobody in the family having a job. When the Depression hit, her dad was let go from his painting job, one of the few types of jobs black men were allowed by the whites to have. The only income their family had was whatever he earned by playing the numbers.
Filled with norms of the time, like husbands forbidding their wives to work — even while their children starved — to preserve his fragile masculinity, Daddy Was a Number Runner demonstrates what the families do to survive. For example, young, innocent Francie learns that when she goes to the butcher and baker, if they feel her breasts she gets an extra meat bone or roll to take home to the family.
Two soup bones. I hoped Mother would be impressed. I passed the bakery shop and Max the Baker was outside sweeping the tile. I got extra rolls from him, too, whenever he got the chance to feel me.
The author succeeds in sharing the sad and frustrating story simply through that — story — without injecting emotion that would undermine the poignancy if Meriwether handled it any other way. As it is, it is plain and clear what is right and wrong because it is told matter-of-factly through the innocent perspective of a child who knows no other way of living.
There was nothing else to say. Either you was a whore like China Doll or you worked in a laundry or did day’s work or ran poker games or had a baby every year.
As women were limited in the jobs they were permitted by whites to work, so were black men. They were relegated to the lowliest jobs and had no hope to be employed at any level whites deemed them beneath. They were not lazy. They could not pull themselves up by their bootstraps: they were continually pushed back down. They were disallowed from working and were left to starve in their own country.
Daddy Was a Number Runner is important in American literature. While there are plenty of coming of age books about black boys or white girls set in NYC, this is the singular fictional account of a black girl growing up in Harlem during the Depression. Her perspective is unique.
Novel: The Godfather
Author: Mario Puzo, born and raised in Manhattan
Setting: 1940s New York
The Godfather was everything I wanted it to be: strong, memorable characters; the intrigue of the Mafia and its intricate social structure and underground business network; a feel for the Corleone New York; and most importantly, a story that pulled me in and made everything else disappear. Puzo created a world I was happy to be a voyeur into and not have to be a part of.
It was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.
What I like about The Godfather is that the characters are both sympathetic and horrifying. Like in HBO’s The Wire, where the bad guys are good and the good guys are bad, even though Don Corleone has people murdered left and right, it’s hard not to like and admire him. He’s not a villain you love to hate. He’s smart. He loves his family. He’s a master negotiator.
“Never get angry,” the Don had instructed. “Never make a threat. Reason with people.” The word “reason” sounded so much better in Italian, ragione, to rejoin.
The Corleone and other Families deal in blood for business, and that is extreme. But it is clever hyperbole to illustrate how people making good money can lose their humanity for the good of the business.
I don’t like bloodshed. I’m a businessman and blood costs too much money.
Book: Just Kids
Author: Patti Smith, lived in NY
Setting: 1960s-1970s New York City
Wow! This was an unexpected gem, and is one of my favorite books of my reading tour so far. I didn’t know who Patti Smith was when I read this book — I knew the photos of her, but before reading Just Kids I didn’t know if she was a poet, artist, or rock ‘n’ roll star (all three).
This is the autobiographical story of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, when they were “just kids”: homeless artists living on the streets of New York City, eventually finding hovels to live in, making money at odd jobs and making their art, but mostly finding contentment (for a while) in their love and bond with one another, soul mates in art and creativity.
Patti Smith has a true artist’s soul, and I loved reading about her time at the Chelsea Hotel, meeting people like Janice Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, not being impressed by Andy Warhol, and ultimately gaining fame by accident before her ambitious lover Mapplethorpe, who wanted more than anything to be famous.
I admit I am a sucker for this time period — and especially for the music and art scene of the 60s and 70s –and I loved Patti Smith after reading this book. She is strong and compassionate. She is authentic, a lover, an artist, and a raw, vibrant (and funny) soul.
Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger.” I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time.
Novel: The Goldfinch
Author: Donna Tartt
I adapted the following writeup from the original on my Butterfly Mind blog.
By the final 200 pages you could barely pry this book from my hands.
Set in modern-day New York City, in an abandoned neighborhood development outside Vegas, and a little bit in Amsterdam, The Goldfinch is the story of Theo Dekker, son of an absent alcoholic dad and a stable, art-loving mom. At age 13, Theo is suspended from school, and as he and his mom kill time at an exhibit before meeting the principal, the museum is bombed in a terrorist attack. Theo survives, but his mother does not.
The saga that follows is impossible to resist – PTSD, a 13-year-old orphan living with a friend on Park Avenue, an alcoholic dad who whisks Theo off to Vegas, a friendship with a Russian boy named Boris, drugs and drugs and drugs, and always the painting, tugging, gripping Theo in its clutches as surely as alcoholism grips his father, as opiate pills grip Theo, as the chain grips the little yellow goldfinch to the wall.
The Goldfinch is dark alleys and golden sunlight, it is the constant grapple with who is good and who is bad, who is the right one to love, who is the wrong one; it is about how can I be any other than who I am. The Goldfinch made me want to be reckless. It made me grateful that I’m not. It gave me a new favorite character – Boris – though in real life I would never feel safe with him. The Goldfinch is about being shackled to things against our will – objects, memories, addictions, genetics – and finding beauty in the darkness.
In it, Tartt captures the addict perfectly – the distortion between the addict’s internal world and his external actions, his justifications, his own belief that he is good even while he is behaving badly, the lying, the covering up, the brilliant high, the tar black low, the emotional depths, the passion for who and what he loves, the aspiring to great ends via shady, ugly means.
The Goldfinch, as any great art will do, showed me a life I’ll never know while making me see my life differently. The thing about this book, aside from Tartt nailing the struggle of the addict, the wrestling with trying to be good while knowing you are acting badly, is that Tartt shows us we can never escape who we truly are, and what can we do about that?