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, Three, Four, and Five for more of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South and New York.
New York is a city of big personalities. The loud, the brash, the irrationally confident — they all seem to elbow their way into Manhattan, or one of its surrounding boroughs. Maybe it’s because, with so many humans fighting for room, you have to shout to make your personality heard. In many ways, it’s what I like least about New York. All that self-preservation can easily turn into intolerance, or arrogance, or just plain bad manners. There’s value in listening, in taking the time to imagine another complexly and to make room for their needs alongside yours. But there’s also something delightful, and unabashedly New York, about a big personality that is completely unashamed about letting his or her freak flag fly. So this post is for them, the characters with the big voices who are proud to stake out centerstage (and who’ll be damned if anyone is going to steal their spotlight). It’s for the unexpected softness and kindness that more often than not lies behind all that braggadocio. And it’s for us, the ex-pats and the transplants, in hopes that when the occasion arrives, we can all summon our “Inner Resources” and find our inner New Yorker.
Classic Fiction: Eloise: A Book for Precocious Grown-Ups
When It Was Published: 1969
When I Read It: sometime in my youth or childhood
Where It Takes Place: The Plaza, darling
Why I Love It: Who doesn’t love Eloise? The epitome of precociousness, with her brash confidence and mischievous ways, her no-nonsense attitude and her flair for the dramatic, she was for me and many people our first real example of a New Yorker. It’s said she was inspired by Liza Minnelli, Thompson’s goddaughter, but she really could have been any one of the street (or rather, hotel hallway) smart, self-possessed young things who call New York their playground. As a sheltered suburban kid, I devoured the rascally misadventures of our knee-socked heroine on the tippy-top floor of a fabulous hotel (with Nanny, Weenie the pug, and Skipperdee the turtle, of course). And as I grew up and eventually moved to her stomping grounds, I’ve come to believe that sometimes this city demands the inner-Eloise in all of us — to stand up for ourselves, to delight in everyday absurdity, and sometimes to deal this town a well-deserved, hands-on-our-hips raspberry.
Contemporary Fiction: Saint Mazie
When It Was Published: 2015
When I Read It: last month, on rumbling subway rides, with George Ezra in my ears
Where It Takes Place: The Lower East Side, to Coney Island, to the Bowery, and various sundry spots in between
Why I Love It: Let’s start with the premise: A documentary filmmaker discovers the diary of one Mazie Philipps (inspired by the real-life Mazie Gordon, profiled by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker in 1940). Wild flapper child turned ticket taker at the Venice movie theatre and patron saint of the hobo masses who swarmed onto the New York streets after the stock market crashed, Mazie narrates the twists and turns of her life in a wry, honest, never self-indulgent voice. Her diary entries alternate with interviews with those who knew her, or of her, apparently done by the filmmaker in hopes of resurrecting the now-deceased Mazie and bringing her mainly unsung exploits to light. The book is as much a portrait of New York — from pre-Prohibition decadence and the first World War through speakeasies, gentrification, and the crippling economic stagnation of the Depression — as of its vivid heroine.
Author: Mindy Kaling
When It Was Published: 2012
When I Read It: once the summer after I graduated college, and again when I moved to Brooklyn (and started watching Kaling’s fantastic TV show)
Where It Takes Place: to be fair, largely not in New York, but a significant (and formative) chunk does transpire in a cramped Brooklyn apartment and in sketchy subway cars to and from Manhattan
Why I Love It: Mindy Kaling is my spirit animal. And her take on life in New York, especially as a 20-something female trying to do something vaguely artistic, speaks to my soul. Behind all the hilarity and mishaps are very real lessons about the importance of true friends, especially the gal pals that know you best, and the challenge of forging a path through the chaos and making your voice heard in the cacophony of humans “expressing themselves.” In particular, she’s a big cheerleader for making things you love with people you love, even if nobody else will hear them. Which reminds me of a little blog I know, made by two twenty-something lady besties trying to make it in New York…
When It Was Published: 2015 (the updated 40th Anniversary Edition — the original came out in 2002)
Where It Takes Place: 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY, 10112
Why It’s Awesome: Talk about colorful characters. This tome has been on my shelf for months, with pages and pages of hilarity and behind-the-scenes tidbits ready for me to consume. Miller and Shales talked to as many cast members, writers, crew, and guests past and present as they could to stitch together this oral history of America’s greatest comedy show. This book has everything: Fey, Poehler, Hader, Short, Martin, Chase, Shannon, Oteri, Fallon, Meyers, Ferrell, DJ Baby Bok Choy…the list goes on and on.