This post is part of our “Required Reading” series, in which we share some of our favorite tales and tomes of New York and the South — classic and contemporary, fiction and nonfiction, short form and long. These are the stories that open our eyes to other walks of life, that shape who we are, and that make us feel at home no matter where we may be. Check out Volumes One, Two, and Three for more of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South and New York.
My first Required Reading focused on Southern ladies and the incisive, insightful, charming, and generous things they write. In this post, I turn to New York, who has no shortage of awesome and literarily-inclined women. From sisters to sisters from other misters, the books by these wise, witty, wonderful women are about relationships — between people, between people and places, and with ourselves. People often talk about New York as a place people come to find themselves, to figure out who they want to be. It’s a crazed scrum of humanity teeming with possibilities, which can be by turns exhilarating and exhausting. These authors all carved out corners of the chaos to call their own, and the tales they spun (or continue to spin) brim, overwhelmingly, with love — for family, for friends, for romantic counterparts, for books, and for the city they call home.
Classic Fiction: All-of-a-Kind Family
Author: Sydney Taylor
When It Was Published: 1951
When I Read It: somewhere around kindergarten or first grade, when I lept from Arthur’s Eyes to chapter books
Where It Takes Place: The Lower East Side
Why I Love It: Reading the tales of this Jewish-American family on the Lower East Side is the first memory I have of New York. I was only 5 or 6 at the time and my suburban house in Overland Park, Kansas, could not have been more different from their turn-of-the-century apartment, but I dove headfirst into the adventures of Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie (and later Charlie). They searched for buttons while dusting the parlor and traded pennies for little chocolate babies and celebrated holidays and sucked smoked salmon off the scraps of skin the fishmonger would give them, and I was hooked. I fell in love with the way books could transport me to another time and place, into another person’s life. And a seed was planted then, too, that would grow into a fascination with New York.
Contemporary Fiction: The History of Love
Author: Nicole Krauss
When It Was Published: 2005
When I Read It: in the Paris winter of 2013, riding the bus out into the banlieue
Where It Takes Place: Brighton Beach, and Poland
Why I Love It: “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” Incandescent and enchanting are the best words I can think of to describe this book, which crosses boundaries of time and distance and says so much about the human condition, the power of language, and the ways we love. I read this in a cold and snowy winter, far from home and uncertain of what I was doing (or wanted to do) with my life. It was recommended to me by one of my dearest friends there, a fellow lover of words, and it brought such light and beauty into my grey days. It’s a story about family and romance and time and creativity, and about storytelling itself. Ten year-old Leo falls in love with his neighbor Alma, so he writes her three books. The first is too prosaic. The second is unconvincing. But the third, The History of Love, is dedicated to her, and its story goes on to have ripple effects for generations (to say any more would spoil the novel).
Non-Fiction: Not That Kind of Girl
Author: Lena Dunham
When It Was Published: 2014
When I Read It: shortly after it came out, sitting at my desk at work or on the subway as one of at least three adult females per car all reading the same thing
Where It Takes Place: Soho, then Brooklyn, with some Ohio and Los Angeles thrown in for good measure
Why I Love It: I am not an avid watcher of Girls, and I’ll admit I was a bit skeptical about Lena Dunham’s prose debut. But her honesty and wit blew me away. Reading these essays, you feel like you’re Dunham’s best friend, staying up late at a slumber party and whispering those thoughts that only get spoken after lights out. She is by turns poignant and hilarious, and extraordinarily brave in the way she lays bare her life, warts and all, and refuses to apologize for any of it. Some chapters were more enjoyable than others, but overall it was a delightful read, and her deep love for New York is one of the book’s most prevalent themes. She speaks of the city like a life-long bestie, like a parent, like a teacher, and like the most intimate of lovers. From Soho to Brooklyn, she knows the city like it was tattooed on the back of her hand, a constant companion through all her ups and downs and heartbreaks and weird sexual encounters and bad hair decisions and champagne toasts. Taylor Swift may have been named New York’s Ambassador, but when it comes to loving this city (in all its gritty non-pop fantasies), her pal Lena could give her a run for her money.
On My Wish List: The Group
Author: Mary McCarthy
When It Was Published: 1963
Where It Takes Place: Poughkeepsie originally, swiftly followed by New York City
Why It’s Awesome: The original girl power novel of female friendship, The Group follows a group of eight friends as they graduate from Vassar and make their way into the world, from 1933 to 1940. The book was seen as scandalous at the time (it was even banned in Australia), and later went on to inspire Candace Bushnell to pen a certain series about another group of fabulous gal pals who go by Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha. The book is the story of friendships and how they evolve post-college, and it’s the story of the divergent paths women’s lives may take, at a time when more and more options were starting to be put on the table. But it’s also the story of New York, and how it shapes the many confused and excited and lost and eager women who call it their own.
And an Update: My favorite book this month comes from Girl Raised in the South, and former New York transplant, Mamrie Hart. I was expecting her memoir, You Deserve a Drink, to be funny, full of her trademark blend of bawd and puns. But what I wasn’t expecting was how much I would identify with her stories, and how much insight would be found between the cocktail recipes and dick jokes. Read it, if you haven’t already (preferably with one of her original cocktails in hand).