Required Reading: Volume Eight

A couple months ago, I shared with you my wish/to-do list of Southern works of literature I needed to get my hands on. From fiction to nonfiction, classics to recent debuts, they ran the gamut of the Southern experience, chronicling the rich tapestry of characters and places that make the region so uniquely fascinating.

But this is a blog about the South and New York, and about the experience of being a Southerner in New York in particular. So I feel it’s only appropriate that, like the good Comparative Literature student I am (or at least, was, at one point), I do my research. Because New York, with its cornucopia of different neighborhoods and folks from every walk of life, was also made for the literary stage. Its streets and skyscrapers have provided inspiration to countless writers over the years, who have in turn produced works as diverse as the city itself. Here are some of the ones at the top of my “To Read” pile.

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Frances and Bernard, Carlene Bauer: This novel could also be titled When Robert Met Flannery, spinning a tale based on the actual friendship between the real-life poet, Mr. Lowell, and short story mistress, Ms. O’Connor. It’s a story of bittersweet romance and the fierce love and kinship of platonic soulmates, otherwise known as best friends, all set against the backdrop of 1950s New York.

Time and Again, Jack Finney: Speaking of bosom buddies, one of mine recommended this book to me, while sitting in a Brussels hotel room after a long day of chocolate tasting and misplaced umbrellas.This book has everything — time travel, government secrets, love, mysterious letters, cross-century romance — and it’s even illustrated. I recently picked up a dog-eared copy at the Strand and can’t wait to dive in.

The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem: I thoroughly enjoyed Lethem’s non-fiction (particularly The Disappointment Artist, which I read back in my college days), so I’m optimistic about this modern classic, the book that catapulted him into the literary spotlight. Like one of my all-time favorite New York novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, it features orphans, comic books, friendship, and madcap adventures, all of which bodes exceedingly well. Also, it’s a musical!

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner: This National Book Award finalist, named one of the best books of 2013 by the New York Times Book Review, tells the story of the vibrant, ambitious, reckless Reno and her journey through the radical art scene of SoHo, the East Village, and beyond in the 1970s. Critics described is as “dazzling,” “irresistible,” and “scintillatingly alive” — a wild ride from start to finish.

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Live from New York: The Complete, Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales: I mentioned this in a previous Required Reading but still haven’t cracked it open! An oral history of the sketch show to beat all sketch shows, which kicked off the careers of almost every comedic voice of significance in the United States over the last 50 years. They give it to you in their own words, uncensored, from Armisen to Zamata.

Open City, Teju Cole: In this haunting novel, a Nigerian grad student wanders the streets of Manhattan, reflecting on his life, his relationships, and the nature of the human soul. Cole’s lush prose, full of imagery the New York Times dubbed “delicious,” sweeps the reader along for the journey, down side streets and along Central Park pathways and across the Atlantic Ocean, through the narrator’s personal history and the history of New York itself.

The Group, Mary McCarthy: This seminal tale of female friendship has been on my to-read list for ages. Before Sex and the City or Gossip Girl or Broad City or Girls, there was Mary McCarthy and her story about eight Vassar grads who move to the city and learn to navigate the ups and downs of adulthood, from 1933 to 1940. It’s a portrait of female friendship in all its forms, as well as a keen look at the lives and struggles of women in the period between the World Wars.

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster: With its dark alleyways, colorful characters, and reputation for insomnia, New York seems tailor made for a detective story. But these are not your typical tales of crime and punishment, no neat Nancy Drew plots or Poirot deductions to be found. Instead, Auster defies his own genre and uses the detective trope to address mysteries of a far more existential nature. After all, as he famously said, “Reality is a great deal more strange than we ever give it credit for.”

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Up in the Old Hotel, Joseph Mitchell: New York is known for its cast of colorful characters, the kind of special snowflakes who would cause a monumental stir in any other town, but in New York muster the barest bat of an eyelash. As a writer for The New Yorker, Mitchell excelled at capturing portraits of these very individual individuals. This book compiles them all in one handy volume.

The Beautiful and the Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald: If I could go back to any period in history, I would pick Paris in the 1920s. But should my time travel be restricted to this continent, New York in the 20s would not be a bad second choice. Nobody captured the Jazz Age elite quite like Fitzgerald, whose Gatsby is truly one of my favorite New York books. This, his second novel, spins the tale of socialite Anthony Patch and his tempestuous wife Gloria, and rumor has it the couple was based on Scott’s own relationship with his wife, and my pen-namesake, Zelda.

The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe: A Dickensian novel for the 20th century, this tale of ambition, class, race, and greed in 1980s New York first ran as serialized installments in Rolling Stone. The story revolves around wealthy bond trader Sherman McCoy, assistant district attorney Larry Kramer, and British ex-pat journalist Peter Fallow, and its electrifying ups and downs made it the best-selling fiction debut of the decade.

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton: Before there was Wolfe, or Fitzgerald, or McCarthy, or any of the writers on this list, there was Wharton, chronicling the lives of Manhattan’s elite with honesty and wit. Praised for its subtle irony and attention to detail, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1921, making Wharton the first woman ever to do so. Werk.

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American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis: I’m a huge fan of Ellis’s Bennington classmate and friend Donna Tartt, but have yet to read anything by the man himself. In light of the musical adaption of this, his best-known work, in previews now on Broadway (see: My 2016 Theatre Wish List), I feel obligated to experience the tale of yuppie greed and psychopathic bloodshed in its original form before heading to 45th Street.

Just Kids, Patti Smith: This is one of those books that people keep talking about and recommending to me, in the most glowing tones; one that I’ve started multiple times, only to put it down after one or two or five chapters; and one that I just can’t quite seem to get swept up in. But the list of people who love it is long, and filled with folks whose literary taste I trust. So I will try again, and hope that my New York-ness, such as it is, will finally offer me an entry point into this memoir about life and love and what it means to make art.

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara: A.K.A. the book all of your obnoxious literary friends were raving and bawling their eyes out over last year. As if the portrait of agony that serves as its cover weren’t proof enough, this book is sure to put you through the emotional wringer, with the general reaction to its completion being summed up as: “Whoof.” However, those same weepy readers also uniformly dub this saga of friendship, which follows four college friends across several decades of their lives (in, you guessed it, New York), the best book they’ve read in years. Just make sure you have a box of tissues handy.

Mapping Manhattan: A Love (And Sometimes Hate) Story in Maps by 75 New Yorkers, Becky Cooper: And finally, for something a little different, it’s PostSecret meets cartography! Becky Cooper walked from one end of Manhattan to another, armed with blank maps, and asked people to trace their own personal maps of the city on them and mail them to a P.O. Box. The responses she received range from the comedic to the sentimental, filled with honest confessions and delicious tidbits, joy and nostalgia and heartbreak.

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