The Big City Book Club

As mentioned before, New York Times has started a book club – the Big City Book Club. Ginia Bellafonte is in charge and every six weeks or so, she decides which book to feature and then people can comment on her blog. All the books chosen will be about New York City in some way or other. The fourth book chosen is  A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. I have no plans to read this book so I’m skipping it and waiting for the fifth installment.

I know it’s chickening out to not read this book. Or at least I feel that when you’re part of a book club, you should read all the books – not only the ones you’re already interested in. But – this is not a normal book club for once and I have so many other books I would rather be reading so I’m going to continue to justify this decision to myself and just wait for February when the next book is chosen (and hope that’s a book I am interested in!).

Related posts (previous installments in the book club):

Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

As mentioned before, New York Times has started a book club – the Big City Book Club. Ginia Bellafonte is in charge and every six weeks or so, she decides which book to feature and then people can comment on her blog. All the books chosen will be about New York City in some way or other. The third book chosen is Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The next book club will be on January 10th – the book has not been named yet. I read Breakfast at Tiffany’s back in 2009 and liked it, but didn’t love it. I read it in a volume which contained Breakfast at Tiffany’s as well as three other short stories. Here I’m featuring the review I wrote back then.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
This is the longest story in the book and the most well-known. Our narrator lives in the same building as Holiday Golightly, a young woman with a spunky attitude who earns her living by making “trips to the powder room”. Her apartment is a mess and in some ways, so is her life but on the surface she’s calm and collected and always looking perfect behind her dark glasses. The narrator and a fellow friend meet because the friend maybe has news about Holly whom they both lost track of.
Holly is a girl with a past. She’s also a girl completely in control on the outside but in need of people to help her get everything together. She’s a person who can’t be trapped – or named – just like her cat who lives with her but has no name because they don’t belong together because Holly doesn’t want to own things before she’s found a place where she and things belong together, a home. She’s one of those persons that you meet in your life, spend a summer or a year with and then they disappear from your life but you always look back on that time and smile.
Holly has created her own version of what she thinks men want – and she studies hard to keep on top of her subject. Books about baseball etc so she can talk with men. But behind the facade, she’s mostly a scared and a bit naive girl who escapes to Tiffany’s when life gets too hard.
But when all comes to all, Holly didn’t really get to me. Maybe because the story is too short to really get under her skin – even though I know perfectly who she is. And I liked that the ending wasn’t all Hollywood. But something just didn’t resonate with me the way I needed it too… On the other hand, the shortness of the novel is also the way other people get to know Holly – she’s only in your life a short while so the way we as the reader experience her is also the way people in her life see her.
But I do like the way Capote write – like this quote: “He was a middle-aged child that had never shed its baby fat, though some gifted tailor had almost succeeded in camouflaging his plump and spankable bottom. There wasn’t a suspicion of bone in his body; his face, a zero filled in with pretty miniature features, had an unused, a virginal quality: it was as if he’d been born, then expanded, his skin remaining unlined as a blown-up balloon and his mouth, though ready for squalls and tantrums, a spoiled sweet puckering.”(35) I love this description of a man!

House of Flowers
A young girl earning her living as a prostitute, meets a young man who she falls in love with – the bee didn’t sting – and marries. However, his grandmother tries her hardest to make life hard for the girl and starts putting various animals in her sewing basket. To get even with her, the girl starts making the grandmother’s dinner by using the various animals she find in the basket…
A story about choosing your fate – even when others don’t agree with your choice.

A Diamond Guitar
This prison story is about accepting life – and knowing who’s truly your friend. Mr. Schaeffer is in prison for murder and one day, a young man is imprisoned. The two men becomes friends – even though the new man plays songs on his guitar that reminds the prisoners of life outside: “Now, recognizing his loneliness, he felt alive. He had not wanted to be alive. To be alive was to remember brown rivers where the fish run, and sunlight on a lady’s hair.”(143) And when you’re in prison and starts longing for the outside, it can make you make dangerous decisions…

A Christmas Memory
This was my favourite story in the book. Seven year old ‘Buddy’ lives together with his distant cousin, an older woman, and their dog, the rat terrier Queenie. Each christmas they bake a lot of fruitcakes and send them to various people and look forward to receiving thank you cards back. This christmas, their last together, they also hunt for a very special tree.
The story is a somewhat melancholic recollection of this christmas but very sweet and touching. And Capote got the dog completely – they put a bone for her in the tree close to the top and “Queenie knows it’s there. She squats at the foot of the tree staring up in a trance of greed: when bedtime arrives she refuses to budge.” I can just see that small terrier sitting there, waiting determined for her bone!

All in all, 4 okay stories from a great writer. I really like Capote’s way of writing in these stories but as always, I’m not the biggest fan of short stories and I more often than not find that they don’t linger with me – simply because they are too short to really register, I think. And I was a bit disappointed with Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Previous posts about the Big City Book Club:

Helen Schulman: This Beautiful Life

Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

Helen Schulman: This Beautiful Life

This is the second book in the New York Times’ Big City Book Club. You can read the discussion of the book as well as an interview with Helen Schulman here. You can read my review of the first book chosen by the book club, Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann, here. The third book in the book club will be Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s which I fortunately have read recently.

Helen Schulman: This Beautiful Life (HarperCollins, 2011).

One of a parent’s worst nightmare is that your child does something that you can’t save them from. That they make some mistake that can’t be fixed no matter how you try. This is the situation for Richard and Liz when their 16-years old son Jake receives a sexually explicit video from a 13-years old girl, Daisy, he knows – and then forwards it to his best friend. The friend forwards it as well and soon the video is all over the internet and Jake is expelled from school.
Richard and Liz are living the good life. They are in New York, Richard makes a lot of money and Liz is a stay at home mom, taking care of Jack and especially his sister, 5 years old Coco, adopted from China. When Jake forwards the video, a ball starts rolling that’s almost impossible to stop. His parents fight to get him back in school and to ensure that his future isn’t ruined by that one click of a mouse. They do whatever it takes – and are willing to fight with every means they’ve got to get Jack back on track.
But the fight changes them and the whole situation causes Richard to have issues at work where he has the job of a lifetime, the job they moved to NY for. Their otherwise happy marriage comes under such pressure that cracks start to appear.
Coco is caught in the middle of this. Her parents’ focus on Jake leaves her somewhat unattended and exposes her to parts of life she is still to young to understand and deal with. I really liked Coco – but at the same time this precocious 5-years old girl who gets away with everything, feels a bit like a stereotype and not like a person. I feel like there are many young girls, especially (of course), adopted from China in books, tv series these day and they are all sort of the same character.
When I first heard of the subject of this book, I was really intrigued by it – unfortunately it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The idea about a teenager who does one wrong thing on the internet and then have his life turned upside down, is so current and important. And how do we as parents protect our children from the dangers of the internet – not just what is out there, but what they themselves can do? Such mistakes can have such huge consequences that they can ruin lives – so easily.
Of course this is also a book about how to be a parent and whether you as a parent are tuned into your kids’ lives. I think it’s very important to talk with your children, to tell them about your day and to thereby encourage them to tell you about theirs. That being said, I think this book puts too much focus on single moments. Jack’s forwarding of the email is one moment and it has a huge impact, yes, but there’s another moment where Liz watches him sleep and when she thinks back at that moment later, it’s with a feeling of regret – she feels that if she had just woken him up and talked to him then and there, everything would have been better. I don’t agree with that. I don’t think parenting is about moments. Of course there will be bad moments and episodes and some of these will have huge effects but I don’t believe that you can fix a bad moment by having a good moment. The biggest parts of your time with your children should be good, loving and caring, nurturing. If that’s the case, you don’t need just one good moment to balance the bad moment out, to save them. They know they are loved and they trust you enough to come to you with your problems.
For most parts the book really flows easily and is a very quick read. But unfortunately it looses it’s momentum somewhat and never really delivers. I don’t expect it to give a solution to the problem it raises but the ending is not satisfying and it would have been nice to follow Daisy more closely so it made more sense why this one event has one set of consequences for her and another for Jake. It’s fascinating to dive into the gender issues and why we judge girls one way and boys another but maybe this book would have worked better if the author had actually really dived into this and maybe told the book from both Daisy’s and Jack’s point of views – instead all our focus and attention is on Jack and only once in a while does a character remember that Daisy is out there too and that she’s just a kid. I think it makes for a more interesting book to have Jack as main character if the other option had been Daisy as main. I think that kind of story of a girl doing something promiscuous has been told. That being said, I think the best solution would have been having both characters as mains.
The book is a fast read and it is a good read. But so much more could have come from this idea and I’m a bit disappointed that more didn’t come.
“It’s just that this beautiful life … I can’t manage it,” [Liz] whispers. “You worked so hard to build it, but I can’t manage it. And I don’t want it.” (quote from location 3391 – page 209)

Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

New York Times has started a new book club – the Big City Book Club. Ginia Bellafonte is in charge and every six weeks or so, she decides which book to read and then people can comment on her blog. All the books chosen will be about New York City in some way or other. The first book chosen was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and since I’ve been wanting to read this for a while, I jumped on the bandwagon and read it – and loved it. The next book club will be on October 18 – the book as the second read is Helen Schulman This Beautiful Life – another novel I’ve been looking forward to.

Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin (Random House, 2009).

Sometimes something happen that brings a lot of people together. Things happen that we will always remember. We will ask each other where where you when … and we all know and remember. This book takes place in NYC and of course, if you talk about an event that has brought NYC together, you immediately think about 9-11. But this book is not about 9-11 – well, not explicitly at least. Even though it’s written after 2001 and even though it involves the Twin Towers, this is not about their destruction but rather a celebration of the towers. A reminder of that these towers stood and they inspired greatness.
The one event that connects a lot of these people one way or another is a guy walking on a tightrope between the towers. In 1974, Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the two still unfinished towers for 45 minutes. This event is the starting point for McCann’s novel.
“He had made himself into a statue, but a perfect New York one, a temporary one, up in the air, high above the city. A statue that had no regard for the past. He had gone to the World Trade Center and had strung his rope across the biggest towers in the world. The Twin Towers. Of all places. So brash. So glassy. So forward-looking.”
For me, this is a masterpiece. I so enjoyed reading this book. Each chapter focus on a new character and slowly, the characters connect with each other and with the tightrope walk in more and more ways. I was so intrigued by this idea of how people exist side by side in a city but is drawn into each other’s lives in so many different ways, sometimes connected by daily occurrences and at other times connected by something extraordinary. “One of those out-of-the-ordinary days that made sense of the slew of ordinary days. New York had a way of going that. Every now and then the city shook its soul out. It assailed you with an image, or a day, or a crime, or a terror, or a beauty so difficult to wrap your mind around that you had to shake your head in disbelief.” (at 69 %).
This is a story of two Irish brothers, one of whom (Corrigan) is a kind of priest, who is helping out a group of hookers. Chief among the hookers are Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn. It’s about Claire and Gloria and the rest of their group of mothers who meet to talk about the sons they lost in Vietnam. It’s about a artist couple, trying to recreate NYC in the 20s. It’s a group of hackers, it’s a graffiti fan. It’s a judge. After Corrigan and Jazzlyn is in an accident, the scope of the novel slowly unfolds and more and more people are involved and connected.
It’s hard to detail what it’s about since it’s about the lives of a lot of very different people but the beauty of it all is that these people are connected and connecting in many different ways as their lives unfold. It offers a glimpse of all the lives coming together and then separating again, because of one event. And the tightrope walker becomes a catalyst while at the same time being just one life among many. But still, this is not entirely true because not all stories are connected to other stories or even to the tightrope walker.
It’s about lives in a city. One summer in NYC in 1974 – and then with a epilogue in 2006 – people’s lives were touched by this one man’s feat.
I felt for a lot of these people, not the least for Claire who has lost a son in Vietnam. And I was constantly thrilled with the way it’s written. The author uses repetitions, not only in the stories where you see the same thing from different points of view but also to emphasize certain points. He also changes his writing style to accommodate some of the characters very different way of speaking and thinking – for instance Tillie.
But even though this is not a 9-11 novel per se, it still mentions 9-11 – and in a very beautiful way: “A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.”.
This is exactly what this book is about – points, where stories collide. Points where lives collide. And it’s magical even though the stories are so real, so painful. Not many happy endings here. But the books ends on a happy note still and it left me feeling sorry that it was over but happy that I had read it.
This is a story of how one man’s obsession, one man’s feeling that when you put up two towers like these, he just had to put a line between them and walk it, one man’s dream can unite a city and like a stone thrown in water, create circles that grow and grow and touch more and more.