Tag Archives: New York City

“New York 2140” by Kim Stanley Robinson

You have to admire an author who stands an academic/cultural trope on its head. We’ve all heard of The Tragedy of the Commons, right? Heavy. Very heavy. Robinson brings us…the COMEDY of the Commons! I love it. Among other fancies, he produces a new Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn duo, Stefan and Roberto, a pair of “water rats” who live by luck and their wits in a stolen Zodiac in the drowned city of Lower Manhattan.

This book reminds me of The Martian by Andy Weir. In The Martian, one man fights a planet for survival. In New York 2140 Robinson creates a crowd of lovable eccentrics and follows their struggles on the hard-to-recognize landscape of New York after sea level rise.

Robinson treats himself to a “chorus”, the presence of a non-participant (identified as “citizen” or “the city smartass”) who comments on the setting (the New York bight) and sometimes addresses the reader, as in the following rant:

“Because life is robust,

Because life is bigger than equations, stronger than money, stronger than guns and poison and bad zoning policy, stronger than capitalism,

Because Mother Nature bats last, and Mother Ocean is strong, and we live inside our mothers forever, and Life is tenacious and you can never kill it, you can never buy it,

So Life is going to dive down into your dark pools, Life is going to explode the enclosures and bring back the commons,

O you dark pools of money and law and quanitudinal(sic) stupidity, you over simple algorithms of greed, you desperate simpletons hoping for a story you can understand,

Hoping for safety, hoping for cessation of uncertainty, hoping for ownership of volatility, O you poor fearful jerks,

Life! Life! Life! Life is going to kick your ass!”

Robinson is channeling Walt Whitman here. (Whether I believe this or not is a question for another day.)

The basic scenario of New York 2140 is that sea level rise, happening in two “pulses” rather than slowly, has transpired and a great deal of land has been abandoned. But New York City is just too valuable, so it evolves into three zones – dry land in northern Manhattan, an “intertidal” zone and a marginally occupied, heavily damaged Lower Manhattan. The book takes place in the intertidal zone, which is starting to “gentrify”.

Robinson quotes a number of sources throughout the book, mostly at chapter headings. Robert Moses, for example, who ruthlessly imposed his vision on the New York infrastructure. Additionally, H L Mencken, Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville, and assorted scientists and commentators. Some are worth checking out.

Robinson makes a “character” out of an existing building, the Met Life Tower on Madison Avenue. It is portrayed as having “personality”. In 2140, it is occupied by a housing cooperative. New York is very crowded, so successful professionals pay dearly for even a tiny bit of space, like a bunk in a dormitory.

Characters in New York 2140 make occasional reference to Thomas Piketty, whose book Capital in the 21st Century has been attracting attention recently. Piketty is a French academic who has studied the history of the distribution of wealth. Both Piketty and K S Robinson are asking how capitalism can be structured to benefit the citizens of a democratic nation. Believe it or not, there’s a copy of Piketty’s book in my livingroom. I plan to read at least some of it. Stay tuned!

I dashed excitedly through New York 2140 in a few days, and I’ve written this without consulting reviews. After I do that, I may learn that, one way or another, I’ve entirely missed the point.

 

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“She Made Me Laugh – My Friend Nora Ephron” by Richard Cohen

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Nora Ephron is almost my contemporary, but the eight year age difference between us is, in fact, a big deal. Born in 1941, she faced a level of sexist chauvinism which was being challenged by the time I graduated from high school and headed out into the world. Ephron’s life is an interesting study in American feminism as it emerged after World War II.

I admit to being only sketchily familiar with her books and movies. I saw “Sleepless in Seattle”.

Richard Cohen, nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about Ephron because they were best friends. Inadvertently, he provides insight into the New York City world of the rich and famous (and those aspiring to be…) There’s a little too much name dropping, but the affection that underlies the writing is unmistakable.

I think Ephron’s book Heartburn falls into the category of “guilty pleasure” fiction. It’s based on the breakup of her first marriage, which happened at a time when women were often advised to turn a blind eye to spousal infidelity. I can’t help but be disturbed by her fictionalizing her family (especially her children) so extensively. She was, according to Cohen, absolutely confident that she did no harm.

I believe Ephron has been compared to Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) whom Wikipedia describes as “poet, satirist and critic”. I read a biography of Parker and would describe her as brilliant but mean spirited. I think Ephron was equally bright and talented, but far more kind and generous.

If you enjoy biography and/or contemporary gossip, this book is a good read.

“The Rosie Effect” by Graeme Simsion

See my blog post of August 7, 2016, for information about Simsion’s earlier novel.

This is the second novel about the autistic genius Don Tillman and his brilliantly flamboyant wife Rosie. Don is still trying to figure out “normal people” and emotions. His wife’s unexpected pregnancy throws both wife and husband for a loop.

Simsion draws out the confusion extensively – hey, that’s what romantic comedy is all about! Along the way he creates some great characters. There’s Bud (baby under development), and Aaron the Air Marshal ( assigned to determine if Don’s autistic behavior means he’s going to blow up a flight to LA) and the B-team, three researchers dedicated to explicating the reactions of babies to lesbian mothering.

This book is wildly funny. Read it for good laughs! I hope for a sequel.

“Last Words” by George Carlin (with Tony Hendra)

Published in 2009, 294 pages.

Another book brought to me by my son! Thanks for continuing to broaden my horizons! If you bring it, I will read…

I wish this book had been published with its working title (discussed in the introduction) of “sortabiography”. I like that. Last Words sounds Biblical, and not very Carlin-esque.

I like the early chapters of this book the best, when Carlin describes his childhood, with emphasis on his friends and neighbors. After all, I also come of Irish stock, though my family didn’t pass through New York City and wasn’t Catholic. (I envy the former, but not the later.)

George Carlin was a rebel from his earliest days. His mother had the strength and good sense to leave an abusive marriage, but his older brother had already suffered terribly and his mother’s efforts to get cooperation and conformity from George were completely unavailing. At age 17, with his mother’s consent, he entered the Air Force. He was discharged on vague grounds after two courts martial and other infractions. I’ve heard the expression “not suitable for regimentation”. Sounds like George.

There follow many chapters about Carlin’s family life and his evolution as a performer. I feel that his writing in this book suffered from lack of editing. Once you get famous, you don’t get edited. (I first heard this from a Pulitzer prize winning poet.) NOBODY was really going to edit George Carlin. His co-author Tony Hendra (listed on the cover in itty-bitty print) is a better writer than Carlin, at least based on Last Words. (I haven’t read Brain Droppings and Carlin’s other best selling books.)

What Carlin and Hendra have in common is the satiric outlook on life. In Carlin’s case, this can get pretty dark. At one point, he contemplated an HBO special to be entitled “I Love it When Lots of People Die”. This was changed due to bad timing – September 11, 2001, came and went, and even Carlin knew it wasn’t funny any more. But you know, in a weird way, I get it. I have a close friend who roots for every hurricane that comes up the Atlantic coast. It’s not that he really wants people to die, but sometimes he really wants the storm to win. Many of us root for the forces of chaos on occasion.

I have a particular fondness for Tony Hendra because of how much I enjoyed his book Father Joe: the Man Who Saved My Soul (2004). See my blog entry of January 21, 2014. A “sortabiography” of great wit and charm.

At the end of Last Words, Carlin circles back to consideration of his childhood and discusses his desire to write a musical about it, which he proposes to call “New York Boy”. A good idea, and I wish it had happened. I wonder if he was thinking of the book Boston Boy by Nat Hentoff. Hentoff was a jazz critic, scholar and political commentator, a decade older than Carlin, and still writing at age 90. “Boston Boy” could be the backbone of an excellent musical, but I can’t find evidence that anyone is working on it.

Carlin says that he identified more with the rebel musicians of the 1960s (and earlier) than with his comedy peers. He probably knew and admired Hentoff.

So… If you are a Carlin fan, a student of contemporary America or a comedy lover, read this book!

“My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor

This is a blockbuster autobiography. Sotomayor’s life is the “American dream”. She came from a very poor Spanish speaking Puerto Rican family in the Bronx. Her family travelled “back to the island” regularly , giving her access to the richness of Puerto Rican culture, but she had almost no contact with the wonders of nearby Manhattan. She became a lawyer, then a judge, and now serves on the Supreme Court, as its first Hispanic appointee. She is sometimes referred to as a “poster child” for affirmative action.

As a small child, Sonia took charge of her diabetes, which was diagnosed when she was seven. Her parents couldn’t handle the necessary daily injections of insulin, so Sonia administered them herself, understanding perfectly well that mismanagement of the disease could disable or kill her. Another turning point of her childhood, a few years later, was her mother’s decision to speak English at home. Sonia’s ability to cope with school increased exponentially. Much later in life, she was part of an organization that went to court to establish that public schools must provide bilingual education. Before then, many Spanish speaking students were classified as disabled or “slow” because teachers could not communicate with them.

In her autobiography, Sotomayor writes about learning how to learn. As early as elementary school, she approached high performing peers and asked them HOW they got good grades. Her parochial education placed a heavy emphasis on memorization, and she was floored when, as a junior in high school, she was asked to write an essay and EXPLAIN her ideas. At Princeton, a helpful friend kept passing her the “classics” she had missed, like Alice in Wonderland.

Finding mentors became a habit that benefitted Sotomayor at every stage of her education and career, though she was stubborn and admits she often listened carefully to advice and then did something else. Parts of this book should be required reading for college students. Sotomayor got in over her head time after time, and worked her way up with gritty determination.

Now a Justice of the Supreme Court and the first Hispanic to hold such a position, Sotomayor deals daily with the most important issues of our day, including immigration law. Her autobiography ends with her first judgeship, but I look forward to a second installment. She’s an energetic writer and a clear thinker, and has a wonderful life story to share.

“The Memory Chalet” by Tony Judt

The problem with this book is that it must be read through two totally different lenses. First, it is the memoir of a dying man. Judt suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, one of the cruelest neurodegenerative maladies. ALS leaves the mind trapped in a paralyzed, helpless body. Judt died two years after he was diagnosed. His original symptoms were those of a mild stroke.

Judt’s work must also be judged in light of his (high) academic standing and status as a “public intellectual”. I’m no judge of academics and have little knowledge of “public intellectuals”, though I’m inclined to think we need more of them, or perhaps should pay better attention to those we have. (Judt solves one of my problems by telling me where to FIND public intellectuals – The New York Review of Books.)

So what about The Memory Chalet? It’s a charming book. The “chalet” is Judt’s alternative to The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (by JD Spence). Suffering through torturous nights in his quadriplegic condition, Judt needed a mental “device”, a mnemonic, to remember the essays he “wrote” in his head. He remembered a chalet in Switzerland where his family used to vacation. It was a humble, 12 room hostel he recalled in comprehensive detail and which had, for him, a wonderfully positive ambience. Moving through it in his mind allowed him to organize his ideas and recall them later for dictation to an assistant.

What did he write? A great deal was about his childhood and education. He loved trains, hated school, became aware of his Jewish identity… The picture he paints of post war England is detailed. It’s hard for us, looking back, to understand what “austerity” meant. Judt fills in the details, and also elucidates the sense of solidarity, of unity, that England experienced after WW II (and has since lost).

Judt became interested in politics very young (14?) and embraced Zionism and socialism to the extent of spending extensive holidays on a Kibbutz. His parents were displeased when he spoke of moving to Israel permanently. Of these experiences, he says “Before even turning twenty I had become, been and ceased to be a Zionist, a Marxist and a communitarian settler: no mean achievement for a south London teenager.” To the relief of his family, he enrolled at Cambridge and studied history.

What about Judt the “public intellectual”? He taught at various universities and wrote extensively. His original field was criticism of French historians (hope I got that right). He says his book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (2006) secured “public intellectual” status for him. He tried to overcome the Western European habit of ignoring important events in Eastern Europe. He describes his decision to learn the Czech language as a turning point in his intellectual evolution.

Judt described himself as a “universalist social democrat”. It’s going to take me a while to parse that. In the meantime, I think it would make a good mantra.

I might read Postwar, but more likely will look at Thinking the Twentieth Century (published posthumously, coauthored by T Snyder) first. Written in dialogue format, it is sounds accessible to non-historians like me.

“Tepper Isn’t Going Out” by Calvin Trillin – urban fiction at its very best!

Reading about cities (see previous post) caused me to grab this old favorite off the shelf. This short novel is a paean to New York City and its residents. The hero is a mild mannered businessman who develops an eccentric hobby. He hunts for and occupies parking spaces even though he rents space in a garage to avoid the endless business of moving the car from one legal spot to another. Unintentionally, he attracts attention and polarizes public opinion. In this novel, Trillin pokes fun at almost everyone. My kind of humor. Read it when you want to cheer up.

My first exposure to Trillin was his book Alice, Let’s Eat, which left me weak with laughter. Now he writes satirical political verse for The Nation. Thank you, Calvin Trillin, for years of wonderful writing!