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 through Twelve for more of Zelda’s favorite tales of the South and New York.
We started this blog in 2014, when we were both 24 years old. We were cobbling together part-time jobs and freelance gigs, subsisting largely on rice and eggs and ramen, frequently questioning why we had dragged ourselves to this expensive, overcrowded, dirty, chaotic city where getting from day to day often felt like repeatedly slamming ourselves into the pavement. A lot has changed in the five years since then. We both have grown-up jobs, making comfortable livings in the industries we dreamed of pursuing when we came here. We are older and savvier and busier and still tired but in a different way. And we are more ourselves then we have ever been, more sure of who we are and what we want and how we want to get it.
New York, they say, is a city of dreamers, strivers and hustlers who come with a goal that they feel only New York can help them fulfill. If you want to be an actor or a musician or a comedian or an artist or a journalist or a museum educator or a stock broker or an urban planner, this is the place to do it. And it is also a place for those who don’t know what they want to be, who come to this city unsure and unformed, hoping that New York in its vastness and variety of experience will mold them. They have some blurry vision of what a “New Yorker” is. There’s an essence of cool and purpose and savoir faire that this place promises to those that can survive its trials. No wonder, then, that it has proven such ripe territory for the novel, a genre that is more often than not about people struggling to become themselves.
I’m not sure if Scout and I will ever describe ourselves as New Yorkers — certainly not to the exclusion of all other self-identifiers. But we have found our New York selves here. This city has shaped us, leaving its mark as it has on millions who came before us and millions who will come after. This Required Reading is dedicated to a few of those others, some fictional and some real, who have passed through this urban crucible and been indelibly shaped by the force that is New York.
Classic: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
When It Was Published: 2015
When I Read It: I started it last fall, in an airplane over the hills of Thailand, and finished it in the first blush of 2019, in my Brooklyn apartment.
Why I Love It: Now you may be looking at the admittedly recent publication date for this sweeping tale of friendship and abuse and trauma and love and wonder what it could possibly be doing in the “classic” category. But every once in a while, there comes a book that is so transcendent of the sphere of everyday literature that it skyrockets almost immediately to the status of “modern classic.” Yanagihara’s masterpiece seemed to be ubiquitous from the moment it debuted: From subway cars to parks to airports to offices, everywhere I looked, an anguished, blue-toned man grimaced back at me. I lost track of the number of friends who told me I simply HAD to read this book. And yet, for a long time, I resisted. Every recommendation ran along the lines of “it will emotionally devastate you, but it’s great and totally worth it,” and this impending heartache combined with its intimidating length and a bit of rebellious spirit made me put it off. Surely, I thought, it couldn’t possibly live up to all that hype.
And then I finally bit the bullet: Five pages in, I was completely hooked. In the simplest terms, this is the story of four men, college suitemates and best friends, and the journey that begins in their post-grad mid-twenties as starving (mostly) artists in New York and unspools over the next several decades. It is a tale of our pasts and how they haunt us, of the bonds that toe the line between friend and family, of love of others and love of self, and of art and intimacy and what it means to be a man in the 21st century. And it’s a story about New York, this city that has shaped so many ambitious, desperate, hungry young things who hope to make their mark, and to have this city mold them in return.
They were all right. It will rip your heart out. But it is inexpressibly beautiful. And it is worth it.
Contemporary Fiction: Asymmetry
Author: Lisa Halliday
When It Was Published: 2018
When I Read It: In a heady three-day rush this past February
Where It Takes Place: The Upper West Side, Queens, and the Hamptons, with a sizable portion also spent in Heathrow Airport
Why I Love It: This novel is really two novellas in one, with a third section that ties parts one and two together. Part one revolves around a 20-something junior editor at a New York publishing house who has an affair with a much older, very famous author (a plot Halliday claims is not based on her own relationship as a 20-something junior editor at a publishing house with a much older Philip Roth — or at least not entirely). The second section follows a young Iraqi-American economist detained at Heathrow Airport, shortly after 9/11, as he attempts to return to Iraq to see his brother; it ricochets between his present circumstances and his past growing up as an immigrant kid in New York and an enamored college student and an adrift adult. The third section subtly draws a line between the two — so subtly, in fact, that I missed it entirely on first read and had to Google the connection upon finishing the book.
But even if you too find yourself breezing by the twist, you will still be rewarded by beautiful writing, deeply imagined characters, and an honest portrait of love and relationships and age and ambition and identity. And Halliday does a particularly good job of capturing the nuances and politics and characters of the New York publishing world — one she knows intimately — as well as the struggles of transplants, whether toddlers or 20-somethings, to forge themselves in this city.
To Read, Nonfiction: Just Kids
Author: Patti Smith
When It Was Published: 2010
Where It Takes Place: New York in the 1960s and 70s
Why It’s Awesome: Confession: I have tried at least three times to start this book, and I have failed to get past the first couple chapters every single time. I have many friends who love it; they rave about the quality of the writing and the intimacy with which Smith recounts her relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. And yet, I just have never been able to get into it. But a recent trip to the Guggenheim Museum, which is currently staging part one of what will be a two-part, yearlong examination of Mapplethorpe’s work, has inspired me to give it one more go.
Smith has said that she wrote the book because Mapplethorpe, her lover turned best friend and collaborator, asked her to. “Our relationship was such that I knew what he would want and the quality of what he deserved,” she told the magazine Classic Rock. “So that was my agenda for writing that book. I wrote it to fulfill my vow to him, which was on his deathbed. In finishing, I did feel that I’d fulfilled my promise.” Having spent an hour lost in the intimacy of his photographs, particularly his many self-portraits, I have a hankering to know more about the man whose eyes gazed back at me, and the complicated relationship he built with the woman who lived to tell their story.
To Read, Fiction: Severance
Author: Ling Ma
When It Was Published: 2018
Where It Takes Place: An apocalyptic Manhattan and Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Why It’s Awesome: This is an imminent “to read” for me, as the next selection for Scout’s and my book club. The first novel from Chinese American professor and writer Ling Ma, the book is billed as “an apocalyptic satire” centered around the recently orphaned Candace Chen who survives a plague, becomes a blogger anonymously documenting the abandoned city of New York, and then joins up with a group of fellow survivors journeying to a safe haven called the Facility — and who may not be what they seem.
Our fellow book-clubber, friend-of-the-blog and Kindle devotee Sarah Sheppard, loved it so much after reading the library-provided e-book that she went out and bought a hard copy of her own (which I have now borrowed — thanks, Sarah!). If that isn’t a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.