Month: August 2011

This is New York

I wake up in the morning to the song of sirens and the murmur of traffic, heartbeat of a city that has never gone to sleep. People are already talking loudly outside on the street, music blares from passing cars and children whoop and scream as they play baseball in the scrubby diamond in front of my apartment building. When I leave to launch myself out into this heaving metropolis, I become another cog in the wheel of a gargantuan piece of machinery that never stops whirring. Everywhere you go, footsteps pound, voices chatter, horns honk, lights twinkle, arms are raised, steam belches, people stream from every orifice, smells emanate from all manner of carts and grates and stores…the city is positively alive and moving, and you cannot help but be swept along with it.

This is a city where everyone is on the move and everyone is on the up; the buildings soar high into the sky and on grey days, they even pierce the clouds. New York is the city of dreams; everyone here has one they are trying to achieve. From the busboys in East Village restaurants to the girls working in midtown offices, they have all come here from somewhere else, looking to absorb the energy, the passion, and the sheer life of this throbbing city in order to make something of themselves. Some do, some don’t, but all are united by their belief that here, it is possible to be something more than what they are.

New York is a city of extremes; in the winter, the temperatures plummet to well below freezing, and in the summer, the heat regularly tops 100F. The homeless stand side by side with millionaires on the city streets. Being in the midst of it all can be overwhelmingly loud, but walk into the centre of Central Park and the silence is deafening. It’s not all excitement and glamour; alongside the glorious skyscrapers and magnificent riverside vistas are dingy tenements, ugly concrete office buildings, piles of rotting rubbish and tacky fast food shops. When your mood is low, walking around the ugliest and smelliest parts of midtown can be enough to make you question why you are here, and why exactly you thought this city had any more magic than anywhere else. It is at these moments, just when you think you’ve had enough of striving to make it work here, that New York shines its brightest, striking you afresh by how spectacular it is. It might be an unexpected glimpse of the glittering tip of the Empire State Building, or a midnight stroll through the pretty streets of the East Village; perhaps it’s sitting in Bryant Park watching the world go by, or eating brunch on a sunny sidewalk on a Saturday morning; whatever that moment might be, you’re suddenly reminded of what a magical, unique and truly extraordinary place you are lucky enough to live in, and the awe and affection come flooding back in. For New York may kick you down repeatedly, but it will always offer you the hand you need to pull yourself back up again.

New York is legendary for a reason. It really is a city of dreams. Anything and everything is accepted and acceptable here; no dream is too big, no mountain too high. The air vibrates with positive energy, its people are full of purpose and ambition, and even the highest stories of skyscrapers, virtually impossible to be seen with the naked eye, are lavishly decorated, encouraging you to look up, up, up, in the direction of infinite possibility. It’s not an easy place to call home, and it’s not always delightful, but somehow, it never quite ceases to be compelling, enchanting, addictive and exciting. There’s always something new to see, do, enjoy, and marvel at; there is never a dull moment, and never a pause. New York is not for the faint hearted. It’s for those who believe in the beauty of their dreams, who are determined to reach for the stars, and who aren’t afraid of a few knocks on their way to achieving their ambitions. New York hardens you, but it also opens your eyes to the magnificence of man, making you appreciate the sheer wonder of what we are capable of. This little marshy island, a mere speck in the Atlantic, has become the greatest city on earth. If New York can do it, then why can’t you? That question continues to draw hundreds of thousands of people here every year, seeking fame, fortune, fun and the opportunity to become the person they always thought they might be, given half the chance. New York doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and it chews up and spits out many of these wide eyed innocents who arrive on its hallowed streets with a sparkle in their eye and a suitcase in their hands, but for those it embraces….well. They’ll never be the same again. This is the magic of New York.

The Story of Charlotte’s Web by Michael Sims

This is quite simply a brilliant book. Even if you don’t have the vaguest interest in E.B.White’s life or the genesis of Charlotte’s Web, I’m sure you’d still manage to find something in it to intrigue or delight you. Literary biography is a difficult monster to tackle; too much focus on the literary and you lose the people who want to know the juicy details of the life, and too much focus on the biography and you lose those who want to understand the writing process and how much of the writer went into the work.  Michael Sims straddles the line between the two perfectly, and has created a sublime piece of writing that is heartfelt, humorous, fascinating and moving. I actually couldn’t put it down, and that’s a first for me when it comes to non fiction. I knew very little about E B White before I read this and now I am desperate to read more.

Sims begins with exploring E.B.White’s idyllic Edwardian childhood in a large house in Mount Vernon, a New York suburb. The youngest of seven children, Elwyn Brooks White was born in 1899 to prosperous, already middle aged parents, who were well educated and encouraged creativity and a spirit of adventure in their children. White’s next sibling in line was 5 years older than him and so from a young age he grew used to playing alone and retreating into a world of his imagination. Behind his house was a large barn for the family’s horses, as White grew up in a world that still largely used horse and cart as a means of getting around. White adored spending time in the barn with the horses, and developed a keen interest in the animal world, often preferring animals to people. Painfully shy, he found it difficult to form relationships, especially with girls, and the highlight of his year was always the family’s vacations to the beautiful Maine coast, where he was free to ramble in the stunning countryside and enjoy the natural world around him.

As he progressed into his teen and college years, White developed his love of writing into a successful talent, being published in juvenile magazines and college papers. On graduation, he moved around for a while, working in various jobs in New York while submitting stories and essays to a range of magazines. One of these magazines was a fledgling production entitled The New Yorker, and one of the young editors there, a Mrs Katherine Angell, was so impressed by his writing that she asked him to join the permanent staff. There began White’s writing career; as a columnist, satirist and essayist, he swiftly found himself becoming one of the nation’s most adored writers, with his gentle, witty and observant voice on all manner of topics, from New York to romance. In 1929 he married the newly divorced Katherine, beginning what would be a long and happy partnership.

After his marriage, E.B.White grew tired of New York and longed for a home in Maine, which was to him an enchanted land of unspoiled nature and glittering oceans. So, he and Katherine bought a farm at Allen Cove, a coastal town, and they proceeded to split their time between New York and Maine for the rest of their lives. White adored his farm, mostly because of how close it allowed him to be to his animals. No gentleman farmer, White insisted on doing the work himself, rearing his animals, caring for them, and finally killing them, something that never ceased to disturb him. The huge barn joined to the house was a place of comfort and solace, and it was spotting a spider in the barn that first gave him the idea for what would be his greatest legacy; Charlotte’s Web. Eager to write a book for children that did not talk down to them, and that did not infantilise or unrealistically portray animals and their motivations and behaviour, White spent five years agonizing over the writing of Charlotte’s Web. The finished article was ultimately a distillation of his admirably positive, curious and idealistic attitude towards life. Its success was instant; and no man deserved it more.

Sims goes into much detail about the genesis of Charlotte’s Web, and also of Stuart Little, which I haven’t read, exploring White’s writing process and interests in fascinating chapters that include how deeply White researched spiders in order to accurately portray Charlotte’s thoughts and actions. However, the greatest joy of the book is how sensitively, affectionately and movingly he brings White to life. An anxious and shy man, he lacked self esteem and was incredibly nervous in public. He constantly worried about his health and about what others thought of him, writing long letters to his wife about such incidents as preparing for his death when he found his face to be swollen before finding out it was just sunburn, and his worries about how terrible he thought his writing was. At the same time, however, he was incredibly courageous and daring, and loved to try new things, albeit when nobody else was watching. Loving, warm, loyal and hilariously funny, White never missed an opportunity to poke fun at himself and was a much adored friend to all he knew. He loved animals and children, and was never happier than when he was on his farm. However, he also loved the buzz of New York, writing one of his most famous essays, Here is New York, about its many delights.

Sims effortlessly weaves a tale of a contradictory, extraordinary and endearing man, whose love of life and of nature came together in Charlotte’s Web to create a book that reveals the beauty of its writer’s soul on every page. I felt rather bereft when I closed the pages, as I had come to love White and all that he had been. What a wonderful man he was, and what a fascinating life he led; the period details of New York, of life in a busy magazine office, and of the literary world the Whites inhabited totally absorbed me. This is a magnificent book that interested me on so many different levels. It really is one of the best non fiction books I’ve ever read, and I strongly urge you to read it and be transported into the world of one of America’s finest literary giants, whose heart was as golden as his beautiful prose.

One Day by David Nicholls: Book and Film

I sped-read One Day in two days (I wish I could say it was one day to tie things in nicely, but I’ve just not got the time/concentration span to read a book in a day!), because I had made plans to see the film and I didn’t want to go in blind. I’ve been sniffy about One Day ever since it came out; if everyone is reading a book, I automatically don’t want to join them, and you couldn’t get a book more ubiquitous than this. Everyone’s reading it everywhere you go; on the subway, on the bus, in the work cafeteria, at their book club; it’s been in my face constantly for the past year or so. Such a snob am I that I even borrowed my friend’s Kindle to read the copy she had downloaded rather than get the paperback and publicly declare myself as another David Nicholls groupie! Incidentally, I very much enjoyed reading the book on the Kindle and it has made me reassess my reasons for not investing in one. It would certainly ease up my lower back pain from carting around a huge book everywhere I go, that’s for sure!

As usual, I digress. Much to my surprise, I was hooked on One Day from page one. It is addictive reading, I have to admit. Emma and Dex are the two protagonists who meet one July 15th while at university in Edinburgh and then get revisited every July 15th for the next 20 years, charting the ups and downs of their individual lives and their relationship with each other. They are both very real and their stories are incredibly emotionally engaging. They struggle through their twenties; Emma jumps from one dead end job to another and flounders in a relationship with a perfectly nice boy she can’t love, whereas Dex quickly finds phenomenal success in the media world, but personal tragedy and substance abuse cause his life to be far from the fairytale it appears.  As they grow up, move into their thirties, and begin to work their way through the various rites of passage of adulthood, their friendship remains a source of comfort and joy for them both. However, the shaky romances of both Emma and Dex do constantly beg the question of whether they are both avoiding the inevitable, and as time marches on and their lives do not work out as they had hoped and dreamed, Emma and Dex increasingly find solace in one another.

In many ways the plot is horrendously predictable and there is very little subtlety about many of the big life changing events; I could see them signposted pages before they were announced. However, it’s also a very daring plot in that it is totally realistic and not in any way romantic about life; to use a rather crude phrase, shit happens, and it happens in spades for both Dex and Emma, who weather much disappointment, heartache, grief and loneliness in their individual pursuits of happiness. Nicholl’s observations on the difficulties of forging a competent, fulfilling adult life in the face of constant competition and envy of your peer group’s success; of finding someone to love and be loved by; of finding a purpose and a vocation and of coping with the myriad of difficulties and decisions that life hits you with that you are never taught how to cope with, are true and touching. Life is difficult and confusing and without realising it, we waste a lot of it; it takes us too long now to grow up, to stop believing in fantasies, to recognise the good that is in our lives and appreciate what it is that truly makes us happy. Wrapped up in the pursuit of career success and high ideals, Emma and Dex waste much of their youth, and this sense of missed opportunities and regret is what gives the book its poignancy.

The quality of the writing is nothing special, but it’s not trying to be. It’s not award winning material and it’s never going to be a modern classic, but when it comes to accurately portraying the often harsh realities of life, it’s absolutely spot on. I cried and cried and cried and I also burst out laughing plenty of times. As much as I hate to say it, the quality of the prose wasn’t really that important to me as I read it; it emotionally engaged me, it entertained me and it kept me glued to its pages. What more could I ask for? Nicholls effortlessly made me care about Emma and Dex and desperately want them to find their happiness. Their lives obsessed me while I was reading the book; I couldn’t stop thinking about them and being nervous about what would come next. I felt dirty when I put it down, but the good kind of dirty, like after eating McDonald’s. It was a naughty, indulgent treat, and I loved every minute of it. I hate to say it, but it’s definitely worth a read if you’re looking for a non demanding reading experience with a cracking good story.

The film, on the other hand, was appalling. Anne Hathaway, while playing Emma very well, has no clue where she’s supposed to be from, and her accent was highly distracting. One minute she was American, the next an Upper Class British aristocrat, the next Australian, and then the odd word would crop up in a comedy Yarkshur accent. Frankly, it was embarrassing. Jim Sturgess does Dexter very well and I thought Rafe Spall was excellent as Ian, but despite the good acting, it just didn’t work well as a film. The structure was choppy, the character development thin and the relationship between Emma and Dex totally lacked emotional depth. Without the detailed knowledge of their personalities and lives that you get from the book, the film would leave you confused and cold; they focus too much on cramming in events without getting at the heart behind them. The air of melancholy and regret that hangs over the book just wasn’t transferred onto the screen, and as such, the emotional impact of the novel evaporated. It was a bit of a wasted opportunity, really, and I was more than a little disappointed. Stick to the book!

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

I can’t remember where I first heard about A Girl of the Limberlost; all I know is that I had seen it mentioned frequently as a classic of American children’s literature, and I was intrigued by its setting in rural Indiana and the enthusiasm of people’s comments about it. I found a cheap copy on ebay and was initially put off when I looked inside at the contents; it seemed a rather saccharine Edwardian children’s book, and I didn’t feel particularly moved to read it. However, last week I was stuck for something to read and so I picked this up. Surrounded by the hubbub of a typical subway journey, contrary to my expectations, I found myself transported to a different world as soon as I began reading. Stratton-Porter’s charming description of the Limberlost, a great swathe of swampland in Indiana populated by a wonderful array of beautiful flora and fauna and a lovely teenage girl called Elnora, captured my imagination from the very first page.

Elnora Comstock lives in a house on the edge of the Limberlost with her difficult, unaffectionate and bitter mother, who never recovered from her husband’s death and blames Elnora for it, as he drowned in the swamp while she was giving birth to her. Paralysed by her grief, Kate Comstock has refused to develop her husband’s rich land since he died and so she and her daughter live in needless shabby poverty. This is much to the consternation of the Comstock’s neighbours, the kind and generous Uncle Wesley and Margaret, who adore Elnora and treat her as their own daughter. They understand Kate’s grief and are patient with her, but at the beginning of the novel, things come to a head when Elnora decides that she wants to go school and Kate refuses to give her the money to pay the fees and buy her books. After a humiliating first day, when the beautiful, proud and intelligent Elnora is mocked for her country clothes and disheartened by the unexpected expense of the education she so desires, the tables are turned on Kate. Uncle Wesley and Margaret set out to buy Elnora the wardrobe she needs to fit in at school, and Elnora realises that she can make money out of her treasured hobby of collecting moths by selling her rare samples to The Bird Woman in town. Independently able to support herself and excelling in school, Elnora can hope for a future at last, free of her mother’s cold indifference.

Elnora loves school, her new friends, playing the violin, collecting moths and just being in nature. She delights in the natural world, is kind, generous, loving and excels in all that she does, but the only thing that would truly make her happy is having the love of her mother; something Kate is unable to give. However, Kate’s cruel response to Elnora’s graduation makes Margaret and Wesley realise enough is enough and they finally deliver a secret about Kate’s husband that they have kept for many years, which will change the way she feels about her daughter. Over the long summer that follows Elnora’s graduation, Kate and Elnora discover one other’s true characters for the first time and build a relationship based on affection, consideration and love rather than hatred and bitterness. A visitor will also arrive at the Limberlost who will awaken Elnora’s burgeoning heart during this hot summer of discovery; but, as she soon learns, the course of true love never did run smooth…

A Girl of the Limberlost is really a story of two halves; the story of Elnora’s school days and her mother’s character transformation, and then the story of the boy she falls in love with and the difficulties they have in the course of their romance. It is a charming and beautiful story, based in the most interesting and romantic natural setting I have come across in literature since The Secret Garden. Essentially it is a rustic, very Edwardian fairytale; Elnora is a swamp-dwelling Cinderella and Kate is the wicked Stepmother; Wesley and Margaret are the fairy godmothers and Philip, Elnora’s love interest, the Prince Charming. They all develop their characters through learning important lessons and growing and changing as a result; the natural world teaches them plenty about the goodness of God and the preciousness of life; and the gentle, rural world of the Limberlost, gradually being infiltrated by modern technological advances, is a metaphor for how change is inevitable in life and that we have to adapt ourselves to cope with it. The presence of moths throughout the novel is also important; the notion of the chrysalis being an ugly shell for a beautiful moth or butterfly within is especially significant for Kate Comstock, though it is relevant for several other characters too. As the story progresses, old ugly habits and attitudes are shed to reveal inner goodness and beauty, and no one is shown to be irredeemable, no matter how sturdy the chrysalis surrounding them has been.

Whimsical, lovely and utterly charming, Edwardian children’s literature doesn’t get much better than this. Yes, it’s a little didactic, yes it’s religious, and yes it’s a little sentimental, but the messages it drives home about the importance of being brave and good and generous and loving and respectful of the natural world are timeless, inspiring and beautifully drawn. Elnora is a wonderful character; determined, headstrong, and unfailingly generous, she is an example of how it is possible to transcend the circumstances of your upbringing. I loved all of the characters, the Limberlost itself included, and I have felt very bereft at leaving its world of waving grasses, flower scented air and fluttering butterflies behind. This is the sort of book that once read, you’ll treasure forever. Get hold of a copy and try it for yourself; I promise you won’t regret it.

Lesser Known Islands of New York

One of the benefits of living in Manhattan is that you are never far from the water. From the sea to a garden pond, I feel instantly relaxed as soon as I am in the presence of some sort of body of water, and I love walking alongside the rivers either side of Manhattan as often as possible. In the waters surrounding this little strip of skyscrapers are a multitude of islands, the most famous probably being Liberty Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands. However, I’d like to tell you about some of the lesser visited islands, because they also offer much to see and do, and you won’t be competing with the tourist crowds!

First up; Governor’s Island. This is a fairly popular summer spot for New Yorkers looking for some peace and quiet. A mere 5 minutes’ free ferry ride from either Manhattan or Brooklyn, it was a former US Army post, and it has a fascinating history that can be explored through the beautiful homes and buildings that have been left behind, now all uninhabited. From a Greek Revival brick mansion that used to be the home of the commanding officer to the impressive, colossal barracks that are the largest in the US and were built in the 1920s, the island has some amazing architecture that has been incredibly well preserved. There are churches, old hospitals, a gorgeous tree shaded lawn surrounded by Victorian clapboard houses that were for the higher up officers and their families, as well as Castle Williams, the 1811 fort built to protect Manhattan island from invaders. Most of these buildings are now given over to art installations, and you can explore the empty rooms and peer through dusty windows, imagining what life must have been like here in the heyday of the island’s usage, filled with soldiers, their wives and families. Aside from the historical architecture, there are also miles of promenades around the island from which there are fantastic views of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and there is also a man made mini beach complete with palm trees for those wanting to soak up some sun!

Next up is Roosevelt Island. A tiny slither of an island between Manhattan and Queens, it is accessible by subway, but the best way to get there is via the cable car that runs alongside the Queensboro bridge at 59th street and 2nd avenue. The trip takes around ten minutes and provides fantastic views across the rooftops of Manhattan, down either side of the East River, taking in Brooklyn Bridge and Queens, and also of the construction of the beautiful ironwork that makes up the Queensboro bridge. When you get off the cable car, you find yourself on a peaceful little residential enclave, where the grass verges are clean and neat, the apartment buildings are shiny and new, and there is hardly a person in sight. Roosevelt Island used to be home to a mental asylum, whose buildings have now been converted into luxury apartments, but nowadays it is solely given over to apartment buildings. The majority of these are post 1960s, but there is also some beautiful historic architecture to be found, such as the old asylum buildings, an old farmhouse, a lighthouse, and a large Victorian church. The views across to Manhattan or to Queens are unrivalled, and it is a wonderful breath of fresh air just a stone’s throw from all the action. I’d be very tempted to move there myself if I was going to be living in Manhattan permanently – getting a cable car to work would certainly be quite the adventure!

Lastly, there’s City Island. City Island is an old fishing village in the Bronx that is connected to the mainland by a road bridge. It’s a little slice of New England in New York City, and is filled with fantastic Victorian homes, fish restaurants and quaint little shops. All roads lead to the beach – it’s barely half a mile wide – and the smell of fresh, salty sea air is wonderful. Eastchester Bay lies between City Island and Manhattan, and through the masts of the many boats bobbing out on the water, you can see the hazy tips of the skyscrapers in the distance. I was lucky enough to be invited into the home of a City Island family, and from them I learned about the history of the island and how tight knit its residents are. Most homes were built by fishermen in the 1800s and have been handed down through the generations. Born and bred City Islanders rarely leave and are known as ‘clamdiggers’. Non City Island natives are called ‘musselsuckers’! Each street has its own little section of beach, and these are private; access is by key only. This helps to foster a real community spirit, and neighbours regularly socialise with one another. It’s such a lovely place, with a true seaside village feel, and yet it’s just minutes from a subway station and overlooks Manhattan. The Hamptons eat your heart out; City Island is where it’s at! For a great overview of life on the island, watch the film City Island; it’s excellent!

I hope you enjoyed this whistlestop tour!