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Posts Tagged ‘New York’

My book group chose The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith for November. I’d never heard of either the book or its author, which is one of the lovely things about being in a book group, hearing about authors and books new to you. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I don’t want to give too much away about the plot, but the gist is that it’s the story of a fictional 17th century Dutch painter, Sara de Vos, and of a 20th century Manhattan patent attorney, Martin de Groot, whose family has owned what is thought to be the only landscape painting de Vos painted, and of Ellie Shipley, a young Australian woman writing her dissertation on 17th century Dutch women painters and making money on the side as an art restorer. The book moves around from de Vos’s time to the 1950’s when Ellie and Marty meet in New York to the late 20th century in Australia, where Ellie has returned when Marty reappears in her life forty years after the events that brought them together.

At the heart of the story is the painting Marty’s family owns, “At the Edge of the Wood,” which depicts a young barefoot girl in a ragged dress watching people skate on a frozen river. It goes missing during a benefit dinner at Marty’s penthouse, replaced by a fake so realistic it takes months for him to notice the switch. The mystery leads him to Ellie. And in between, Smith takes readers to de Vos’s Holland, a place grieving from plague deaths, where the art world is controlled by guilds and the whims of the marketplace (tulip paintings come into and go out of fashion with the great speculation in bulbs, for example).

Each of the periods Smith describes beautifully, with details that take the readers right into the scene. The stink of Ellie’s apartment, caused by, among other things, a perpetually moldy ceiling and the rabbit pelts she boils down for her restoration work, is one example. The tension of an art auction. The way a Citroën engine sounds and the color of Marty’s driving gloves in the sunlight.  The slice of skates on a frozen river in Holland. The bustle of Sydney’s sidewalks at night. A scene where Ellie is reflecting on her life and watching men trying to maneuver a refrigerator onto a small boat to ill effect. And detailed depictions of artists at work.

Even ordinary scenes between characters are richly imagined, like this, when Ellie and Marty are together in Australia towards the end of the book: “He hasn’t been neutered by time exactly– there’s still a tiny high pressure weather system that hovers between them– but his potency moves in and out, at the edges of reception, muffled then surging then gone.” Relations between characters throughout the book are described beautifully, whether between friends, co-workers, or couples.

This is a lovely, intriguing novel and if you like art, an incredibly interesting look at what art means to the people who create and collect it. A great book for escaping from the world with. And one I look forward to discussing with my book group!

 

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I’d heard good things about this debut novel about a young couple from Cameroon living in New York, trying to become Americans, around the time the Great Recession starts. I like books that offer a perspective different from my everyday life, so I gave it a try.

It was an entertaining read. The main characters, Jende and Neni, are working hard, trying to reach their American dream. Jende came first, working and living in a cheap apartment with several other people in order to save enough money to bring Neni and their son, Liomi, to New York. Neni gets a student visa and enters community college, hoping to become a pharmacist. She works, too, as a health aide. Jende gets a job through his cousin, working as chauffeur to a Lehman Brothers executive, Clark, and his family.

But Jende’s visa has run out and his application for asylum doesn’t seem to be going well. The novel deals with how this family decides what to do — stay in New York illegally, continuing to struggle and try to avoid any potential legal issues, or return to Cameroon. Meanwhile Clark’s family, wealthy beyond Jende’s and Neni’s imaginations, suffers a number of “first world problems” which only get worse as the financial crisis begins.

This juxtaposition between Jende and Clark and their fates and families is interesting reading. Mbue allows her characters to be flawed and conflicted — no one in this book has a smooth path or impeccable morals. The story got bogged down a few times, maybe to reflect the slow, imperfect progress of the immigration system? The ending was a little bit of a letdown, but again, this may be more art than accident, because there is no clear end of the story for the characters, only more change.

Mbue writes very well, and Behold the Dreamers kept me reading. Worth an evening or two of your time, if only to imagine what life is like for someone whose life is very different than your own.

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I read a pre-publication review of this debut novel by Swan Huntley and thought it sounded different. It is. It’s the story of Catherine West, a wealthy, bored forty-three year old woman from the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She’s been engaged twice, and wants desperately to be married. Her sister Caroline is married to a pediatrician and has three kids. Their mother, Elizabeth, a somewhat stereotypical cold rich woman with strong opinions, has Alzheimer’s and lives in a swanky assisted living facility. Catherine lives on her trust fund, although she owns a small store selling expensive art greeting cards. Her best friend, Susan, is also wealthy and owns a small bonsai store.

If this all sounds boring, it seemed that way to me too at first. But in the opening pages, Katherine meets William Stockton, and her life seems to finally head in the direction she’s always wanted. He’s marriage material, she can tell, and before long they’re engaged. She seems to notice that she has deeper conversations with her masseuse and her wedding planner than with William, but she’s willing to deal with it.

But her mother has an immediate reaction to the news that she is dating William. He tells Catherine he broke an expensive, irreplaceable vase once, as a child, when he was at their apartment with his parents. But Catherine suspects there is more to the story. As the novel unfolds, she tries to understand why her mother can’t stand the idea of William being her son-in-law, and readers learn the secret her parents kept for decades.

That part is interesting, and I enjoyed the mystery of it, even though the secret turns out to be pretty awful. But I also really liked watching Catherine begin to grow up, finally, as she goes through the discovery and eventual emotional fallout. She is trying to be as good a person as she can be, even if her way of being that isn’t terribly well informed. She tells herself she’s not an awful rich person because she provides her housekeeper health insurance, for example, and works in a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving. Most of the time she is still completely out of touch with reality, but by the end of the book she’s working on being vulnerable emotionally with someone instead of awkwardly aware of how her wealth separates her from others. I also really enjoyed the way Huntley writes about Catherine’s relationship with Caroline, and the way the sisters interact with their mother, who has never shown either of them much love.

The story isn’t new — money can’t buy happiness, you have to make your own way in the world, even if your family gives you every advantage, etc. Catherine thinks to herself, towards the end of the novel, “I had thought that beauty was in the flashy, pretty things you acquired to prove that you were happy.” But she has figured out, “Our lives could be beautiful in the quietest ways, and already were.” In some ways it’s hard to understand why she didn’t know that all along, but when you consider her family life, maybe it’s not. We Could Be Beautiful is a fun, entertaining read, but not weightless — I’m still thinking a couple of days later about the characters and their lives.

 

 

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The heroine of Everybody Rise, if you can call her that, is Evelyn Beegan, whose social climbing mother has done her very best to teach Evelyn to fit in with her prep school peers. When the book opens, Evelyn is 26, living in New York just before the Great Recession, and working for People Like Us, an exclusive social media site targeting the rich and well connected crowd she so desperately wants to belong to. She’s convinced if she can deliver the old money members PLU is looking for her life will be perfect. So she learns everything she can about Camilla Rutherford, the alpha girl of New York’s socialite scene, and her circle, pretends to be a part of their world, and begins to get invited to parties and benefits and even the committee organizing one of New York’s debutante balls. She can sense she’s “being seen” and is finally, happily — or so she thinks — one of “them” at last.

But weekends in the Hamptons, expensive tickets, designer clothes, “three-times-a-week blowouts” and “just the right toiletries” are massively expensive. Clifford writes, “The prices struck her as high at first, but she found that, freeingly, the more she spent, the less she cared.” Evelyn finagles money from her parents, stops opening her bills, and instead opens more credit card accounts. By the time her friend Charlotte tries to help her get organized, she’s $65,000 in debt on one card alone. And then her father is indicted for bribery and sued by the other partners in his litigation firm. Evelyn’s carefully curated life begins to fall apart. All the lies she told to seem privileged and respectable catch up with her. When she realizes her parents are about to lose everything and her father is going to prison, she makes one last stab at leveraging her “position” to try and save herself and her parents from disgrace.

I won’t give away what happens but I’ll say that if you think Evelyn sounds ridiculous, you’re not far wrong. It’s hard to like a victim of her own pretentions. And yet, readers know she’s going to learn from the error of her ways, like heroines of nineteenth century novels of manners. I enjoyed the book, but didn’t love it. The greed and excess Clifford portrays is hard to take and the redemption seems half-hearted; I got the impression at the end of the book that given the chance, Evelyn would bag a banker and live the way she was trying to on her own.

Everybody Rise is an interesting, entertaining read but one that left me feeling slightly sick. I guess that’s because this novel is a socioeconomic horror story.

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Teen the Elder is working as a summer intern at New Hampshire Citizens Alliance,where he is one of the only men in the office. During his first week he asked me if I knew what the difference in pay is between men and women in New Hampshire (the average woman earns $0.78 for every $1 earned by a man in our state). He seemed optimistic that the gap will close.

I thought about that as I read Astor Place Vintage by Stephanie Lehmann. The co-protagonists of the book, New Yorkers Amanda Rosenbloom, a contemporary woman who owns a vintage clothing shop and Olive Wescott, an aspiring department store buyer in 1907, both deal with gender and class issues as they struggle to find fulfilling work to support themselves and lasting relationships to sustain them. In Olive’s time, Woolworth’s owner pays shop girls low wages to encourage them to marry and stay home, where he thinks they belong. Amanda loves her work but only stays afloat thanks to loans from her married lover. When she’s threatened with eviction she realizes her shop’s future is more precarious than she thought.

Here’s the review I wrote for the library’s “Beyond the Bestseller” feature:

“Amanda Rosenbloom owns Astor Place Vintage clothing shop but finds more than some beautiful old dresses when she visits 98 year old Jane Kelly. Among the consigned items is a fur muff with a diary from 1907 hidden inside. Amanda, who loves New York history, reads the diary and learns about Olive Wescott, a 19 year old orphan who hopes to become a department store buyer. She’s just lost her father & her income and struggles with expectations about her gender and class as she finds work, settles into a boarding house, and makes new friends. Amanda faces losing her store lease, undergoes hypnosis for insomnia, and vows to break up once and for all with her high-school-sweetheart-married-lover and find a man she can start a family with before she hits menopause. Lehmann deftly weaves Amanda’s and Olive’s stories, taking readers on a virtual tour of old New York (with vintage photos to aid the imagination) in the process. As the novel unfolds it becomes clear that although women today enjoy more rights and freedoms, they have many of the same concerns, dreams, ambitions and desires as their sisters of a century ago. A fun, interesting, thought provoking read for history buffs and fans of Joanna Trollope and Masterpiece’s Mr. Selfridge. An excellent choice for book clubs.”

I didn’t love Mr. Selfridge — I actually never finished watching it — but I loved the history it evoked and the ideas it tried to explore about women and their ambitions and hopes for balancing family and work. And the costumes and sets, which I pictured as I read Astor Place Vintage. Lehmann’s research, which she describes in an interview published in the back of the book, sounds really interesting and I look forward to meeting her tomorrow at Main Street Bookends in Warner.

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I’d had this memoir on my “to-read” list for a long time, and when a patron recently returned it to the library I bumped it to the top.It’s funny and thoughtful and well written. In some ways, the story of Howe trying to assimilate in his Korean American in-laws’ home, where he and his wife have moved in to save money, is relatable. Who hasn’t struggled with career and family choices, wondered about going for a dream (deli ownership in their case), versus playing it safe? Who hasn’t tried to understand their in-laws, or seen their spouse in a new light in their parents’ home?

In other ways, his story is too foreign to seem real. For non-New Yorkers, or as Howe points out even for those who live there, New York is a strange place. Most of us don’t have a mother-in-law feeding our spouse something called “deer juice” nor a parade of relatives arriving, sometimes right in our own bedrooms, at any time. Most of us don’t have the loans, cash, guts, or know-how to start a business. And certainly most of us do not get a dream job as editor at The Paris Review in the George Plimpton era, when editors take “extended absences for the sake of skiing or finishing a novel.”

Howe writes about himself as a sort of misfit, a Brahmin who can never stop being uptight, an odd man out. He writes with good humor and colorful detail. The chapters about his in-laws and the incredible changes they’ve witnessed in their lifetimes in Korea and as immigrants were fascinating. And the inner workings of the deli, the suppliers, and the irrepressible Dwayne, known as “preach” in the neighborhood, their larger than life employee and friend, those were fascinating too.

But it was hard to empathize with Howe. Despite a few setbacks, you just get the feeling he’s led a charmed life and that eroded any suspense. This man would always land on his feet, probably while wearing excellent shoes.

I felt the end of the book tried too hard to wrap things up. The final chapter opens with “It’s been six years since we sold the deli . . .” and then rushes through the resolution of a few hundred pages in just a few more. I like a book that leads readers to their own conclusions, and Howe gets a little heavy-handed with the self-analysis. But overall My Korean Deli is an interesting book, and gave me new respect for how hard it is to run a convenience store.

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