Sunday, April 03, 2016

Of Penthouses, Tenements, and Thieves

Greeting Earthlings and others. I'm happy to say I've been reading a blue streak and want to pass on a few recommendations before my memory deteriorates entirely. 

Let's start a little light with The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin. 

Early in his career, when Capote truly did show promise and began to find success, he inveigled himself into a social circle well above his meager beginnings. These women, wealthy, influential socialites, first regarded him as a pet but friendships emerged, none more so than with Babe Paley, wife of media baron William Paley and the leader of the group Capote called his "swans". Author Benjamin recreates the story of how Capote rose among these society swells as well as his being cast out by his own arrogance. 

In 1975, Esquire published a short story by Capote entitled La Cote Basque 1965. It was the first time he had been published in years and was part of a purported master work he would never finish. The story was a thinly-veiled tale that exposed very private details about the lives of his "swans", details only he would know. By this point in his life, Capote's writing career had stalled. Instead, he had become a "media personality", quipping his way through 70's talk shows and being "seen" at Studio 54 all while pickling himself with coke, alcohol, and self-pity.

After the story was published, they would never speak to Capote again nor would he ever regain his stature. Author Benjamin does an admirable job with this piece of fictionalized history. 

97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement by Jane Ziegelman 

97 Orchard examines each family through the lens of what foods they ate and cooked and how they shopped. She also explains what new foods they learned to enjoy as well as which traditions were preserved from their mother countries. Germans, Russian Jews, Irish, Litvak Jews, and finally Italians all lived at 97 Orchard street and we follow them, beginning in the 1870's through the mid 1930's, and witness the vast changes happening in New York and American culture. 

Reading the book caused me to visit the Tenement Museum, located at 97 Orchard street in NYC. It was an absolutely fascinating view into the lives of the families about whom I'd just read. Do visit and, by all means, read 97 Orchard.

When I began Welcome Thieves, it annoyed me. Kind of that weird-just-to-be-weird thing and I considered putting it down since the To Be Read stack is large and friends and publicists have been generous with new books of late, enough so that Mrs. Next is giving me that familiar "you need to cull the herd" look. I'm really glad I stayed with it because I think Welcome Thieves is clever, funny, and deserving of your time. 

The collection is a bit out of balance but so are the characters and once you get to the third story, "Monkey Chow", you'll know whether or not you want to proceed. Beaudoin writes well AND can tell a story. Word-wise, he is real gunslinger.  A line I particularly liked comes from one of my faves in the collection, "All Dreams Are Night Dreams": 

"She grabs a towel, removes her makeup with a swipe. Beneath is the expression I once saw on the face of man who'd been stabbed with a pen over a game of dice". 

If that grabs you, you'll dig the sweet and sad "Comedy Hour" and the remarkable "You Too Can Graduate in Three Years with a Degree in Contextual Semiotics". Fans of George Saunders and, especially, Karen Russell, will groove to this collection of oddballs, weirdos, and bruised hearts.

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