Apologies for the slow posting lately: Cyrus is on the road this week, at the Modern Language Association among other destinations, and I’m up to my neck in an initial screening of over 550 applications to our Ph.D. program. So much for winter “break.”
I’ve been mulling over a list of my favorite NYC-related books of the last year and realized many of them shared something in common: they sit on my nightstand or in my office unfinished! This isn’t the fault of any of them — it’s a sad byproduct of reading so much for my day job. As usual, I’m trying to read too many things at once. And I’m sure I’ll eventually get through them — some of them in the next few weeks before classes start.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.
It’s driving me nuts that I don’t have more time just to buckle down and finish this: there’s good reason it’s on so many year-end lists. I’m a little over half way though. Its episodic structure, relying on multiple narrators, lends itself to slow-going, though: I can finish off one narrator and then wait a few weeks before taking up the next one. You’re probably familiar with the basics: McCann uses Philippe Petit’s famous tightwire walk between the WTC towers as a unifying device in his portrait of a cross-section of New Yorkers. His genius, much like that of the documentary Man on Wire, is pulling off a post-9/11 work that’s set in 1974: this is, we’re to understand, one version — or many versions — of the world that made us. Previously. And.
Heap, who teaches American Studies at The George Washington University, writes beautifully — without sacrificing historical argument and interpretation — about the forces that shaped, and the consequences that flowed from, a turn-of-the-century craze among upper classes to visit LES low-life, bohemian, Harlem, and gay/lesbian underworlds in New York and Chicago. How did slumming organize social space a century ago? How did it help to produce divisions of race, class, and sexuality that remain in place today? Give me a couple weeks and maybe I’ll have some better answers. Previously.
I haven’t yet got out of the 70s in this one, but damn — what a loving portrait, and rich with biographical detail and cultural insight alike. I’ve sung undying praises for Russell before, but if you’re a fan of popular music and you’ve somehow made it to this point in the century without having purchased this album or seen this film, shame on you! Once you’ve taken those in, you’ll be heading to the bookshop to pick up Lawrence’s bio. Russell has been and will certainly be a key to the rewriting of the downtown scene’s history — one that takes in all its multiple incarnations, from underground disco to minimalism to NY art punk. Previously.
Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James and Karla Murray.
Okay, I can let myself off the hook a bit with this one: it’s a coffee table book! I shouldn’t be expected to have been through it start to finish. A birthday gift from a good friend, I’ve had it next to the sofa all fall and have been rewarded — if saddened — every time I open it randomly and take in a few pages. Some of the storefronts the Murrays photographed are old-friends who’ve since vanished. Bravo to them for preserving this slice of New York life that may not last much longer.
I may actually finish this one in the next two days. This legal history of 19c print underworlds begins with the story of Fanny Hill‘s suprisingly long shelf-life (or behind-the-counter life?) before moving to an account of the recently recovered and increasingly studied “flash press” — a series of irreverent weeklies designed for young, “sporting male” readers curious about celebrity prostitutes — and the libel trials they occasioned in the 1840s. Other print matter, including “fancy” books and sexual advice manuals, also occasioned prosecution and could be even racier. The climax — perhaps an anti-climax? — arrives in the 1870s with Comstock’s postal policing. What Dennis offers that most print histories don’t is a careful legal and partisan-political contextualization: now the literary historians need to catch up!
Plenty of other books I never even had the time to start, including Doctorow’s Homer and Langley and Lethem’s Chronic City. With luck, in 2010! Anything out there you wish you’d been able to finish — or start? WOtBA had a nice year-end round-up of NYC books if you’re looking for other ideas.