Tag Archives: New York

Reader, She Nailed It

You know what’s better than a classic novel? A classic novel retold in a fresh, exciting way. I recently stayed up way past my bedtime to finish Patricia Park’s Re Jane, and am completely delighted with how Jane Eyre’s story might have played out if Jane were a 21st century Korean-American woman from Queens. Park has captured the spirit of the original novel while also exploring how a story’s theme–in this case, the story of an orphan trying to find her rightful place in the world–can be influenced by a character’s race, class, and culture.

Photo by Allana Taranto, all rights reserved. Click through to read the New York Times review of Re Jane.

Photo by Allana Taranto, all rights reserved. Click through to read the New York Times review of Re Jane.

21st-century Jane is an orphan who just had a sweet job offer rescinded due to the bad economy. Now she’s stuck working for her uncle at his grocery store, and his whole family is getting on her nerves. Because she’s honhyol (only half Korean), she gets a lot of flak–and pity–from both her family and the local Korean community. Fed up with having to be on her best behavior all the time (a strict code of respect called nunchi), Jane takes a job as a live-in au pair with the Mazer-Farleys, a pair of college professors in Brooklyn.

Jane and Ed Farley develop feelings for each other much in the way that Jane #1 and her Mr. Rochester do: slowly and awkwardly. But then the narrative takes an unexpected turn, sending present-day Jane off on a literal voyage of self-discovery. The more she learns about Korean culture, her family, and herself, the more Jane comes to realize that she’s going to have to take charge of her own destiny if she wants her life to have a happy ending.

Click through to read an excerpt of the novel and listen to an interview with Park on WBUR.

Click through to read an excerpt of the novel and listen to an interview with Park on WBUR.

When the world is full of unread books to consider, and your TBR list takes up multiple bookshelves, it’s a pleasure when such a terrific piece of literary fiction finally makes its way to the top of that list. Re Jane is a thoughtful exploration of a woman’s life that’s grounded in an obvious respect for, and careful study of, the text that inspired it. It’s difficult to discuss more of the plot without giving away a major spoiler; No matter where in the world Jane happens to be, though, her tone remains true to Bronte: although the language is contemporary, it’s not hard to imagine the original Jane having the same kind of thoughts and feelings, and going through similar internal struggles with belonging and self-image. A little moody and melancholy, but at the same time, focused and determined. I was so captivated that I’m probably going to grab an audio version, too, so I can hear how the narrative voice I imagined plays out in a recording.

If you find re-examinations of classic themes as fascinating as I do, you should definitely check out Re Jane in your format of choice. Have you read Jane Eyre or Wide Sargasso Sea? How do you feel, in general, about modern twists on classic lit? The floor is yours in the comments section.

–Leigh Anne


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Step Right Up

Alice Hoffman has a new book out next week and I am more than a little excited for it. Not only because it’s a book by Alice Hoffman – I loved The Dovekeepers – but the plot hits on some history subjects that really pique my interest, namely New York City at the turn of the last century and side show/circus weirdness (You really need to watch the 1932 movie Freaks. Trust me on this).

source: brooklynmuseum.org

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is about Coralie Sardie, a girl who spends her days as the mermaid in her father’s curiosity museum on the Coney Island boardwalk. When she meets a photographer named Eddie Cohen, they both get tangled up in the fall-out of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The book also promises to include “bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists,” which all seem pretty necessary to me.

In the meantime, go watch Freaks and check out some the circus/sideshow/curiosity items from our collection:





– Jess


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A Sense of Place

There are certain films that are dear to me, not due to plot or characterization, but more because they so effortlessly capture a sense of place—the way a particular landscape or cityscape looks in a given time and place. There are many fine films capturing New York in the seedy 1970s, including Taxi Driver, Saturday Night Fever, Annie Hall, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Warriors. For a glimpse at the Bronx and other parts of New York circa 1981, the great documentary Style Wars can’t be beat.


Just last weekend I ran across an odd and fascinating film called On the Bowery that reaches even further back into New York’s checkered history. Filmed in 1956, the director spent months on the Bowery (known as New  York’s skid row at the time) drinking with its inhabitants, and then writing a screenplay with said inhabitants that would reflect their day-to-day life. For this reason, the film plays like a fictionalized documentary, and is largely without plot or character arc. For most of the film’s 65 minutes, men wake up in some hazy late-afternoon time, head to the bar, and then drink until they fall asleep on the street—or if they’re lucky, in a flop house. There are maybe only one or two women glimpsed in the film’s entirety, and only one scene I can think of where people eat actual food (as opposed to drink). It’s a rarely screened film that has just made its way to DVD after being restored, and is touted by none other than Martin Scorsese as, “a milestone in American cinema… On the Bowery is very special to me… Rogosin’s film is so true to my memories of that place and that time. He accomplished his goal, of portraying the lives of the people who wound up on the Bowery, as simply and honestly and compassionately as possible. It’s a rare achievement.” I imagine Mr. Scorsese is probably right, and this probably is one of the most honest portrayals of what life was like in down-and-out New York around this time; for this reason I would recommend giving the film a try, even if it can be hard to watch at times.

Another favorite “place movie” of mine is Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, but I’ll save that film for a future post. How ’bout you? Do you have a favorite film about a specific place or city?



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Foot N’ Mouth, or 12 years of Social Networking

I’ve had some very interesting experiences over the last few years with what we’ve come to call social networking.  I got to thinking about what for me has been over 10 years of it, once known in the library world as Web 2.0, and in other places as “being on the Internet.”

My experiences have been overwhelmingly constructive; they’ve brought me closer to my nephews and nieces, allowed me to stay in touch with family and friends in the UK, Israel and around the U.S., and in those implausible serendipitous episodes, I’ve been able to reconnect with friends through the most unlikely encounters.  I’ve also had my share of  “I didn’t write that, did I?” moments, one just this past week — but they have been far and few between . . . unless I didn’t want them to be.  This accumulated wisdom has also allowed me to keep pace with my daughter (a 14 year old), though frankly I’d rather be one step ahead of her.

Outside of discussion groups back when there wasn’t a web interface (yes, we used to have to read orange or green text with a black screen, and you needed to know some rudimentary DOS or Unix to navigate around a DEC VAX machine), real time exchanges didn’t take off until the advent of the web-based interface unless you were an intrepid IRC user.  Around 1999 I was a regular reader and contributor to a site that still exists, www.triumphspitfire.com for those of us building, rebuilding or just interested in the Triumph GT6 or Spitfire roadsters.  I spent 18 months rebuilding my Spit, something I couldn’t have done successfully without the give and take of that website and board. It was a gratifying moment when I crossed the line from being the tutored to being the tutor.

Around six years ago I began dabbling in YouTube, even using it several times as a reference tool for someone asking about the Beatles (specifically the first concert at Shea Stadium.)  In seeing what was out there I made some comments about a clip of an Israeli performer, specifically mentioning where I used to live – Kibbutz Yahel.  A few weeks later someone responded to my comment asking how I knew this place, Yahel.  We danced around each other for 1-2 messages; I think we each thought the other was a Nigerian Minister of Banking with a check for us to deposit.  Once we got past that, it turned out we knew each other very well and had even been part of a midnight group skinny-dipping conspiracy 28 years ago.  Steve and I were casual acquaintances, I know his wife, but more importantly,  I was able to ask him about someone who had been my best friend and neighbor for 6 years until he moved to Holland (Dutch wife, child with CF, etc.).  Because of a comment on YouTube I was able to reconnect with my friend Itzik who had since moved back to Israel.

Facebook  probably doesn’t need an explanation for most of you, but I have to take a moment to note that it has revolutionized communication.  I was a reluctant entrant to FB; I looked askance at my 20 something nephews with 286 “Friends”.  Their father, my older brother, used to ask them “how many of your “friends” will loan you something to cover the rent, or take you to the airport at 3:00 in the morning?”  Since then we’ve both come to appreciate its potential and the connections / re-connections we’ve made.  Maybe it’s a boomer thing, because the responses have been almost universal among those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s.  Some of it is escapism, we want our Rob and Laura Petrie TV lives back, even if we never lived them, or possibly it’s because we’re one of the last vestiges of a time when you went outside to play without playdates and didn’t come home until dinnertime.  I’ve also learned some valuable lessons about really thinking before you write, and the power of words.

When I first joined FB I was unaware or unsure of what a Wall was, and who saw what when I posted.  Someone asked me about a particular person we’d all known and if I was friends with him.  This was someone whose existence I marginally tolerated when we lived on Kibbutz together, no way was I going to be his friend.  Of course I wrote something to that effect and immediately had someone else inform me that “you realize don’t you that blank-for-brains can see that?”  No, I didn’t, and that was my last faux-pas until last week.  In an ongoing discussion about growing up on Long Island when I did (about 2,000+ participants), someone asked about a judge who’d been forced to resign and went to prison.  I made a flip comment about him, nothing incorrect or slanderous (if the newspapers and court record are to be believed,) but nevertheless impolite.  His daughters, both participants in this group took great umbrage at what I wrote, along with what several others had to say.   One of the daughters took the wrong approach and aggressively protested dad’s innocence; that wasn’t going to fly.  The other daughter took a different approach, shaming us a little by asking if that was what the forum we were in was about; exclusion and other’s misfortune.  That worked, and it was a lesson learned, something I will take to heart when I post or comment.


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State of Mind

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?

– Tony


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The Wendy Chronicles

It’s been a little over four years since Wendy Wasserstein died, and I still miss her.  Not, obviously, in the way her relatives and friends do; that’s presumptive in the extreme.  It’s Wasserstein’s literary absence that smarts, the loss of a wise and witty author gone too soon.

Best-known for her multiple-prizewinning play, The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein’s body of work also includes humorous essays and one smashing novel, the kind of fictional debut that hurts to read because it’s so good, and there will never be another.  As if to atone, Wasserstein did leave behind various recordings that, when read alongside her literary work, flesh out our posthumous portrait of the quirky, determined author.

Whip-smart, and packed to the gills with artistic and cultural references with which you might not be familiar — I made more than a few trips to the library the first time I read Heidi Chronicles — Wasserstein’s writings constitute encyclopedic coverage of women’s history within a particular context. Her entry in the Jewish Women’s Archive succinctly explains her singular position in contemporary American literature:

Wasserstein made a special place for herself in the American theater by being one of the first women to stage women’s issues with the astute and comic eye of a social critic. As her characters, accomplished women who are trying to find fulfillment in their personal and professional lives, discover that it is impossible to “have it all,” they gain a better understanding of who they are. Although she resisted being labeled a “feminist” playwright, arguing that men are not subject to such labels, she was seriously troubled by the unjust inequities based on gender that she saw in American society. Therefore, her plays continued to focus on women struggling to define themselves in a “postfeminist” America that still suffered from the backlash of sexism, homophobia and traditional values but also from the problem of liberal entitlement. Her writing not only reflected her passionate interest in women but also revealed the fact that she was Jewish and a New Yorker.

On the surface Wendy Wasserstein and I have next to nothing in common, but when she speaks of what unites all women — our desire to succeed on our own terms, and to make peace with women whose terms are not ours — I feel a sense of kinship that transcends the boundaries of age, religion, class and privilege.  Reading Wasserstein has taught me to keep my heart as open as my mind, and to laugh at the obstacles in my path, even as I work diligently to strike them down.

This is, of course, one of the reasons we read:  to learn from those who sing with different voices.  Their compositions are meant to encourage us, not to copy theirs, but to inspire our own.

–Leigh Anne
uncommon woman in training

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