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Best Books About New York

March 30, 2011

Recently, Rob Silverman compiled a list of the 10 Best Books About New York for Huffington Post. I agree with some of his picks, like From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I still need to read The Age of Innocence. I think including Zagat’s was a daring move, stretching the definition of “about” beyond literary. I don’t love it when Holden Caulfield shows up on a best Anything list, because I find the character so annoying. And I don’t understand The Nanny Diaries’ inclusion. Maybe because reading the book just made me mad on behalf of the kid.

Here’s my list of books that captures the spirit of New York city, in no particular order other than the order they occurred to me.

Veronica– Nicholas Christopher. A lovely, magical adventure, beginning at the corner of Waverly and Waverly, and opening up into New York City. Reading this, you have to be ready for a heady, strange experience, dreamlike but also intensely physical and well described. It’s been too long since I read Veronica. Wonder where my copy is.

The Alienist– Caleb Carr. New York at the turn of the century. A terrifying serial killer mystery, made even scarier by the fact of being so firmly grounded in history, and in the way it captures the geography of New York. Teddy Roosevelt is on the New York police force, and psychology is just starting to emerge as a way to try to understand serial killers and horrific violence. I made the mistake of reading the climactic scenes alone in my apartment at night. Yow!

Two by Pete Hamill, both magical and lovely. Snow in August, set in Brooklyn, which combines some of the elements I love- coming of age, Dodgers era baseball, a strong sense of place and culture— and there’s also a golem! I’m due a reread. There’s also Forever, which takes a long look at the island of Manhattan and its history. Cormac is cursed to be immortal. But only as long as he stays on the island of Manhattan. Both books evoke New York city lovingly, with wonderful flights of imagery that hover at the edge of my memory, even though it’s been awhile since I read them.

Time And Again– Jack Finney. I didn’t love this book, but I can’t believe it didn’t make the list. Using a slightly confusing setup of hypnosis to induce time travel, this novel shifts back and forth between 1970 and 1882 New York. I’ve seen time travel and timelessness done better, though I love the descriptions of the changing city. What I find most interesting about the novel is that the present-day chapters, being set in 1970, carry a whiff of time travel to me, reading in the 2000’s.

Of course, I might have died of shock if either Callahan’s Lady or Lady Slings the Booze had made it onto the HuffPo list. Both books, by Spider Robinson, are among my all-time favorites, ever. Set in Brooklyn, centering around an enlightened, offbeat whorehouse, they’re definitely scifi as well as sexually utopian. Time travelers, mind readers, and a talking dog share the stage with more recognizably New York characters; gangsters in cheap suits, cabbies, and a public figure who is probably not Ed Koch. (He’s not named….) The action stays mostly insular to Lady Sally’s house, but forays into cabs and alleyways and restaurants are pure New York.

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