It’s time for a vacation, dear readers. And that is precisely what I will be doing at the end of this week, taking time to see old friends in the city of New York. Since not much else is on my mind, I’m using the inspiration for a New York City booklist. There won’t be much time for reading, as I am going to celebrate a wedding, but I will undoubtedly have these books on my mind as I venture out into some of my favorite neighborhoods.
It’s tempting to start the list with Catcher in the Rye, because if we’re being honest, that is the first book that comes to my mind. But it’s a winter book, and I will not be ice skating on this particular trip. (Also, I was always more of a Franny and Zooey guy). So instead I’ll start with where my mind goes next, Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. This book has had a surprisingly lasting effect on me, though at the time of reading I plowed through it so fast I didn’t think anything would stay. Lionel Essrog moves around Brooklyn attempting to solve the mystery of his murdered boss, but also dealing with his own unique problems, including his suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. Essrog, as a result, is a sympathetic and memorable character, and one that is not soon forgotten.
Next up, probably the best book about New York in recent years, is Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. I’ve had a hard time explaining what makes this book so good, because it’s not about plot (unless you are really interested in what happens in cricket). Our Dutch narrator is simply trying to find his place in the world after his wife and child leave him in post 9/11 New York. His attempts at finding new friendship, the risks he is willing to take in order to be granted it, and the means by which he will fight for his family make this a book worth picking up. Also, Obama read it.
Third, we have Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. I feel like I am constantly defending this book, and I will not stop doing so. Safran Foer has been better, but no narrator will be as memorable as Oskar, a nine year old jack of all trades trying to make sense of the mystery of the fallen towers, and how his father will never return from them. The book is stylistically vast, Safran Foer takes interesting risks, but the story never travels far from our wide-eyed young man dealing with immense tragedy.
A quick break, for good reason. These next two are not New York City books. Like my reading habits, I sometimes can’t stay focused enough without letting my mind go on to a new subject. My mind went not to New York, but to the city’s cousin, the great state of New Jersey. Jersey books hold a spot dear to me, as a former resident of a small town that was more of a suburb of New York City than it belonged in any way to the state. When I read books about Jersey, I think about working in a bookstore in Hoboken and catching the train into the city right after my shift, eager to get out, but happy to be there in that moment.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is quintessential Jersey to me, and the narrator as well as our main character are from Paterson, NJ – which is eerily close to my old stomping grounds in Union City. This book is pure nerd bliss. I’ve never read an author with a voice like Diaz, who is seemingly in long conversation with each unique reader as he tells the story of Oscar. This book rightfully got the accolades, it’s a memorable coming of age tragicomedy with enough nerdom (Tolkien speak!) and history lessons to keep your mind whirling.
And I close out my list with Philip Roth, the writer that, for me, most defines what it means to live in a neighborhood. I’m not well versed in Roth, but if American Pastoral is any indication, he knows what it’s like to be in Newark, NJ. Pastoral is a great character piece, Roth taking the common narrator Nathan Zuckerman and describing his childhood hero, Swede Levov. The life and times of Swede are fiction, of course, but Roth’s roots remain unabashedly Jersey, something I can appreciate.
So what about you, dear readers? I know I missed some good ones for length’s sake, but what books are New York City (or Jersey) to you?