Category Archives: new york

The Great Gatsby and how the city seen from the Queensboro Bridge changed everything

Every year I have students join a book club with me (I’ve written about World War Two and Harry Potter) and this year I added The Great Gatsby to the list of choices for students who are ready to jump into some more classic, adult literature.  I studied The Great Gatsby in high school, college and graduate school, but those lenses into the story don’t seem to quite fit for 8th grade.  Luckily I still have time to think about that, but I also got stuck figuring out how to write about it here: this is not a book review or a literary essay blog, so I went back to my roots and thought about how the story speaks into life at this moment, and at this moment I am thinking about the city.  My city.  New York.

Most New Yorkers with a literary slant in their lives know all the classic lines about where we live, and Fitzgerald’s description is one of the best: “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and all the beauty in the world,” (73).

This is the New York I like to think about the most: the one that still feels magical 9 years later, the one that offers up perfect autumn dinners eaten at the counter and walks into bookstores on the corner and cafe tables on the sidewalk and life swirling around.  The one that has perfect theaters for rainy Sunday matinees that follow a long brunch at a South African restaurant.

And yet. There is also “…a valley of ashes–a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air,” (27).

This is the New York that I also think about.  I can be literal and think about the insane amount of trash that we proffer to the sidewalks or the hours lost waiting on a train that has been rerouted for the weekend.  I can calculate the money I have spent in rent over the years or figure out how many pounds of groceries I have carried over x amount of miles.  I weigh these things often these days. Or, more heavily, I can think about the students who walk into city schools coming from families who don’t value education and don’t see their own worth and a system that doesn’t know how to help.  I can think about the men and women who sleep on the streets and the paralyzing feeling of not being able to help as I walk by with my smart phone in hand.

I dream a lot about a little house with a fire place on a little piece of land, where life could be quiet and where I could see the sunset every day.  And that may happen still.  But.  Living in a place filled with both beauty and ashes has changed the way I read the world around me–and I don’t think I could ever be the same, or shake the feeling that no matter how cozy my life is, whether that is reading my book while homemade tomato sauce is simmering on my stove in my studio apartment or some future multi-room home in my future, there are ashes scattered around me–and that I should never stop looking for ways to help beauty and life to grow among and out of them.

I’ll always love you, New York, and other thoughts from a family book club.

I’ve mentioned before that I have a reading family: my mom and brother devour novels, my dad reads an insane amount of news, my aunts and cousins frequently provide me with book recommendations and have kindred shelves in their homes.  My Aunt Patty recommended a book to my mom called Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, which my mom also really enjoyed.  Knowing that my cousin Carolyn was coming out to visit and is also a reader, she thought it would be fun to have a mini book club while she was in Kentucky.  She bought two more copies, mailed them to Carolyn and I and included a letter about her plan.  (Well, she wrote Carolyn a letter about the plan.  I already knew.  My note said, “Kristen, here’s the book.” Ha.)

{my mom is awesome. also, props to my dad who mixed the drinks and took the picture for us.}

The story follows the narrator Katey through one year of her life–as a 25 year old in 1938 in New York City.  It is bookended with the narrator speaking from middle age, though still in New York, thinking about how there are certain decisions in life that end up shaping the rest of one’s years.  We talked about this for a few minutes at our screened-in porch book club meeting, and it has been the topic that has lingered with me since and settled into the forefront of my mind last night when I was organizing a few boxes of pictures and a trunk that holds old photo albums and journals.  When my mom asked the question if there were decisions we had made that had shaped the outcome of our lives, my obvious answer was moving to New York.  I ran across this picture last night which was taken a month or two after I moved to Manhattan:

{Central Park, fall 2003}

 I made albums documenting each of the first two years, certain that I’d only be in the city for a couple years before I moved back to “regular life” in Ohio.  I wanted to make sure I documented the adventure.  Ha. But somewhere in that third year I decided to stay, and I think it was that decision, more than the one to move to New York for graduate school, that has had the biggest impact on my life since.  That is when I began to count this city as home and stopped thinking about what I was going to do the next year.  I settled in and invested in the people and places around me.  I’m sure there will be decisions in the future that change my life and carry weightier meaning, but my 9 year relationship with New York has been one of the greatest influences on my life and who I’ve become.  Looking at this picture, I remember what it was like trying to find my bearings here–simple things like traveling by foot and subway and more complex ones like trying to concoct a blend of urbanity and midwesterness.  That feels so far away, especially when I realize that I’m about to enter my 10th fall in the city, my 9th year at my school and my 6th year of walking ten minutes to get there.

so 2012 began in the best city in the world with a best friend, laughter and books. This is a good sign, I think.

imgres-2I’ve worked in Brooklyn for over seven years and lived here for almost four.  I love this borough.  A lot. But, there are times when I miss living in Manhattan.  They usually happen when I’m leaving one of my best friend’s apartments on the Upper West Side and I’m walking south on Central Park West with the park to my left and the lights of midtown ahead of me.  Said friend and I had what others (and who are we kidding, ourselves) might initially call a lame New Years, but laughing for hours is never lame.  And, lucky for me the laughing didn’t end when I left her apartment at 1 am by myself.  Like I said, there is something about this city that makes me feel so grateful that I know it like the back of my hand.  Walking by myself on New Year’s was almost poetic, observing the city silently with a smile, loving it and the great friends I have here.

You might be wondering now why I’m writing about this on my blog about books.  Because when I rode the subway up to my friend’s apartment I was reading Lit by Mary Karr, which I’m pretty excited about, but let’s be honest.  It was New Year’s Eve, and even though I was wearing a shiny shirt underneath my coat, I probably looked like a killjoy, incapable of smiling as I read a memoir about alcoholism (even though I had read 40 pages and felt accomplished, like my old reading self again, since it took me 5 weeks to read my last book).
So, one of the shining moments of my New Year’s Eve was when I walked into my friend’s apartment and we exchanged books–I brought her my copy of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and she handed me her copy of Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) and we stood there silently reading the introductions, totally engrossed, and became conscious of how lame we probably looked.  Then we realized we didn’t care and sat there and read all night.  Just kidding. We didn’t do that.  We sat there and laughed all night.  And for this year, I can’t imagine a better way to spend New Year’s Eve.
back cover. can’t stop laughing.
So, back to New York being poetic and riding the subway alone on the biggest party night in town.  I started Kaling’s book and could not stop laughing all the way home.  It could have been a sad little moment, given that I was wearing jeans and flats while surrounded by glamorous, high heeled party-goers, but I was just too thankful for what I did have and for the laugh out loud humor and perspective of the book.  In a town where sometimes I feel like I’m a little too midwestern, it was so refreshing to read Kaling’s not-typically-Hollywood perspective.
Then I stayed up until 3 reading. Then I woke up and finished it this morning.  So all that to say, I had a great New Year’s and you should immediately go out and buy this book.  No, seriously.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem.

“There is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic,” (preface).

“I have as much trouble as the next person with illusion and reality,” (32).

I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion about a year and a half ago and ever since have wanted to read more of her work.  Didion is able to capture–I don’t want to say the heart, because though the heart is filled with mystery, such an overused term does not quite feel nuanced enough for her–the essence of a person or a place or an event in her nonfiction writing.  Her nonfiction essays in Slouching Toward Bethlehem are not merely a chronicle of something or someone that happened, but they cause the reader to enter into the exact temperature of mood and are given thorough understanding and feel of the time and place.  These essays were published individually in the sixties, then pulled together for this collection in the early seventies.

Didion’s writing style made me think about how a sense of place creates a sense of self…or, about how remembering the small details of a place that was once our own can remind us of who we were, and wonder if those tree rings of experience are still buried somewhere.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” (139).

My first studio apartment in New York City in an Upper West Side brownstone–the worn banister next to the slightly crooked steps leading up to the third floor, my ikea furniture and new towels that matched my shower curtain.  My ritual of walking to Riverside Park every night with a mug of tea, looking west, leaning on the black, pointy rail imagining Ohio beyond the horizon.  I knew in those homesick moments that I would look back on them and feel nostalgia for the very reason my heart was then breaking.  Those days when New York didn’t feel like home and my naive sense of self seem so endearing in a “bless her heart” kind of way that I wonder if the hardness of the city has gotten to me, after all.

I can think that way about any place, really.  My high school’s football stadium.  All the backyards of my old neighborhood that ran together.  My first year teaching when I didn’t have my own room and knew those 8th graders were playing me.  While I was visiting my parents in Louisville this summer, I really wanted to make a trip to Ohio–to see people, too, of course–but to run the 3 mile loop through the woods that I ran almost every day of every high school summer.  I romanticize that if I could just run at Sugarcreek every day, then continue my life in Brooklyn, that I’d have such a better sense of self.  Time and logistics didn’t allow me to get there, and I can’t decide if that were a good or bad thing.

Anyway.

Short Recommendation.

www.akindoflibrary.blogspot.com

I have no idea how I haven’t posted about Sloane Crosley after reading her first book of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake a few years ago. But since I made a hard cover purchase the day her second book was released (I can count all previous hard cover purchases on one hand…and I buy a lot of books), I realized it’s high time that I publicly recommend her highly amusing essays to the 5 people who read this blog.  Crosley’s essays resonate with me as she grew up in the suburbs, moved to New York and is about my age, but I remain convinced that they are pretty funny for almost anyone.


Anyway, nothing too deep, but if you are looking for an entertaining summer read, either of these two would work.