Sunday, January 31, 2021

Here is New York by E. B. White

In 1948 E. B. White (the author of Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, and The Trumphet of Swan) was asked by Holiday Magazine, to write an article about New York.  White was living in Maine at the time and didn't like traveling all that much but he agreed to stay at the Algonquin and spend a few weeks walking around Manhattan recording what he saw and how the city had changed since he had last lived there in the 1920's.  The result was Here is New York a classic essay later published as a book and described by critics as one of the great love letters written about the city: 

"New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of  being able to choose his spectacle".

"Every block or two, in most residential sections of New York is a little main street.  A man starts for work in the morning and before he has gone two hundred yards he has completed half a dozen missions: bought a paper, left a pair of shoes to be soled, picked up a pack of cigarettes, ordered a bottle of whiskey to be dispatched in the opposite direction against his home-coming ... So complete is each neighborhood, and so strong a sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village".  

But is that still true about New York?  I haven't been there in a decade but I would guess that the newsstands where you could buy a newspaper and a cup of coffee have gone out of business and who gets their shoes soled these days? The Automat, Chock Full of Nuts and Scrafft's where you could sit down and have a nice lunch are long gone and let's not even start on what's happened to the bookstores. 

E. B. White understood all this and reflected in the 1940's that New York was becoming more crowded, louder and more hectic. The landmarks were being torn down and newer taller and more impersonal buildings were going up.  But White reminds us that New York is always changing and yet never quite loses it's magic and sense of possibility.  And anyone reading Here is New York today will be struck by how prescient E. B. White was in 1948 about the future:  

"The subtlest change in New York is something people don't speak much about but that is in everybody's mind.  The city, for the first time in it's long history, is destructable.  A single flight of planes no bigger than a flock of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers ... this lofty target scraping the skies and meeting the destroying planes halfway, home of all people and all nations, capital of everything, housing the deliberations by which the planes are to be stayed and their errand forestalled".  

Here is New York is about 50 pages and it's very Manhattan centric but it's packed with keen observations and insights about what makes the city tick.  Anyone who has ever lived in New York or is planning a visit will benefit from reading E.B. White's ode to the Big Apple.  Here is New York fulfills the 2021 Back to the Classics category - choose a travel classic.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Secrets Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

I don't regret focusing on the classics these past few years.  It's been a rewarding experience.  But if there is one drawback it's that I don't get to read as much contemporary fiction as I would like and so I am not sure who is out there right now worth reading.  Fortunately my good friend Iris has been keeping tabs on the new and talented authors and she has wonderful judgement.  Some time back for example Iris suggested The Secrets Between Us published 2018 by the Indian-American award winning novelist Thrity Umrigar.  Iris found the book excellent and I completely agree. This is not a book you want to miss.

The Secrets Between Us is set in present day Mumbai, India and tells the story of two elderly women, Bhima and Parvati who form a suprising friendship.  I say suprising because Bhima and Parvatti are very poor and rhey have been hurt badly by life and are not open to trusting others.  Bhima lives in a one room shack with her granddaughter Maya who she is trying to put through college.  She had a secure job for twenty years working as a house keeper for the wealthy Dubash family.  But when the family's son-in-law took advantage of Maya, Bhima could not continue working there and at age 60 Bhima worries where her next job is coming from.  

Parvati is a few years older than Bhima.  When Parvatti was twelve her father sold her to a house of prostitution where she stayed for many years until a disfiguring lump on her neck forced her to leave.  She married an abusive husband who when he died left her penniless.  When the novel begins Parvati earns her living selling vegetables on the street.  She barely has enough to feed herself.  

The lives of Bhima and Parvati and the betrayals they have faced can be hard to read.  Your heart breaks for them and what they've gone through but these two women are also strong, smart and feisty.  Parvati in particular can be quite funny in a bitter way.  After a rocky first meeting the two women decide to go into business together selling fruits and vegetables and a real bond develops.  

Two other characters in the book are Sunitra and Chitra a lesbian couple that Bhima  works part time for and at first Bhima doesn't know what to think.  But she begins to realize that Sunitra and Chitra are kind and good women who love each other and who treat Bhima not as a housekeeper and cook but as a friend. They are eager to help Maya succeed in college by offering their apartment so she can study.  All of the women in this novel are keeping secrets that separate them from others and a happier life.  As Bhima says to Parvati at one point:

"Parvati. Do all human beings keep secrets from one another?  Today you tell me about your life.  And then ten minutes later I run into Serabai.  And she -- she is being killed by the secrets she is keeping.  And Chitra baby says her own father and mother don't know that she moved to Mumbai for Sunitra.  Why do we all walk around like this, hiding from one another"?    Parvati's thumb circles the lump in a fast motion as she ponders the question.  "It isn't the words we speak that makes us who we are.  Or even the deeds we do.  It is the secrets buried in our hearts".  She looks sharply at Bhima  "People think that the ocean is made up of  waves and things that float on top.  But they forget -- the ocean is also what lies at the bottom, all the broken things stuck in the sand.  That, too, is the ocean".

Goodreads has called The Secrets Between Us "a dazzling story about gender, strength, friendship and second chances".  And though the poverty depicted is intense and there are scenes, particularly surrounding Parvatti's life, that are heartbreaking, The Secrets Between Us is an inspiring tale.  It's a novel that shows us the power of friendship to transform people's lives and that friendship is only possible when we reach out to others and not judge.  The Secrets Between Us is a sequel to Thrity Umrigar's bestselling 2006 novel The Space Between Us but both are stand alone books and I enjoyed The Secrets Between Us so much that I would advise you read it first.  Thank you Iris for a great reading experience. 

Thursday, January 7, 2021

2021 Back to the Classics Challenge

A new year has arrived and let's hope 2021 is better for all of us.  Books of course always make things more bearable and so here are the books I plan to read this year for the 2021  Back to the Classics Challenge: 

I9th Century Classic -  Middlemarch by George Elliot - I had planned to read this novel last year but it's a long book and I kept putting it off.  This year I resolve to read it even if I never get around to posting because Middlemarch is not just a classic but one of the greatest novels in the English language.

20th Century Classic  -  Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammet - Years ago I read one of his short stories and remember thinking, boy he's good!  Red Harvest is the first volume in Hammet's collection of Continental Op hardboiled detective stories.

Woman Author -  So Big by Edna Ferber - A popular Pulitzer Prize winning novelist from the earlier part of the 20th century.  Well known in her day and you wonder did gender play a factor in why authors like Edna Ferber, Susan Glaspell and Ellen Glasgow (also early 20th century Pulitzer winners) aren't better known today?  

Classic in Translation - The Wife by Sigried Undset - This is the second book in Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy.  These novels are set in Norway during the Middle Ages and well written.

Classic by a New Author -  Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway - First time reading him and this is a memoir about his time in Paris as a member of the lost generation in the 1920's.

Classic by a Favorite Author -  The Nether World by George Gissing - I have read his classic 19th century novels The Odd Women and New Grub Street and loved both books so The Nether World is next on the list.  

Classic Travel or Adventure  Novel - Here is New York by E. B. White.  A book length essay written in the 1940's in which the author walks around Manhattan writing down everything he sees.   Considered a classic love letter to New York.

Classic About an Animal - Call of The Wild by Jack London.  Kind of an obvious choice for this category.

Children's Classic - Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary -  I remember reading a book I liked when I was very young about a boy named Henry and his dog.  I don't remember the title but if Henry Huggins is the novel I read back then I was reading classics early.

Classic Play - Macbeth by William Shakespeare - I have read only one play by Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, and that's not enough.  Once again I am using the Shakespeare Made Easy edition.

Classic Comedy -   Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger.  Holden Caulfield is a troubled young teenager but also a very funny narrator as he goes after the phonies he sees all  around him. I loved this book as a teenager but does it hold up? 

Classic by Person of Color -The Street by Ann Petry - Karen K at Books and Chocolate (please check out her book blog under blogs I follow) is hosting this year's 2021 Back to the Classics Challenge.  She recently posted about The Street which centers around a  single mother living in Harlem during the 1940's trying to raise her young son.  This novel has been on my radar for a long time and so now is my time to give it a try.

Thanks once again Karen K for hosting this wonderful Classics Challenge and Happy New Year and Happy Reading to All!