Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New York is Book Country

On a recent sunny Sunday, PYZ and I had finished a noonish brunch at the Indian Road Cafe in Inwood and a quick browse through the little antique cum used books shop next door before continuing on a walk through Inwood Park when an excited woman waving a hardcover book approached a couple nearby and exclaimed, "Have you seen my new book! It just came out!" As she stopped to show off her newly published creation, I glanced at the cover to note the title and author. Rude, perhaps, or perhaps a little impertinent to insert myself into their interaction but she had made something of a public announcement.

I scuttled to catch up with PYZ and explained to her that this woman had just had a book published and I had captured title and author and might research it just to see if her excitement was justified. This is called guerrilla reviewing.

PYZ, ever so much more commonsensible than I, asked why I hadn't just stayed and talked with her and with that slight breeze of encouragement, I turned around and walked back to the group and politeley inquired, "So, you just had a book published? What's it about?"

In that way, we found ourselves in an engaging conversation with Hyah Leah Molnar about her new memoir, Under a Red Sky, a memoir that shares her experience growing up in Communist Romania after World War II.    

The book is about her childhood and adolescence and her memory of her family experiences but was not written specifically for the "young adult" genre. Her editor and publishers help make a decision to market it as such (enhancing some marketing opportunities and shutting off some others) and our conversation turned to "young adult" literature and some of the artificiality of the distinction, something that has occupied my thoughts for some time.

If you haven't read Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian or Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, I encourage you to do so to experience examples of books that may be marketed as "young adult" but that defy the label and deserve to be read simply for what they offer any reader lucky enough to be introduced to them. Should Wind in the Willows or Alice in Wonderland be found only in the adolescent sections of libraries or in children's departments of bookstores? (This last question, by the way, is rhetorical.)

We continued our conversation on the significance of the development of individual, family and cultural identies, and the mechanics of writing and publishing, and left having exchanged emails and website information. Subsequent web research on her book suggests that it is worthy of her excitement that day and perhaps I will read it and report some time.

Later that evening, before settling in for Sunday evening showing of The Pacific, we ambled over to an  Irish pub in our neighborhood that features live Irish music on Sunday evenings. We settled in at the bar for Guinness and a view of the band. Sitting next to us was a woman nursing a beer, intent on reading a book opened up in front of her. Neither the beer, the bar conversation nor the lively music of an accordion, a fiddle, a guitar and drums seemed to intrude on her concentration.

Eventually she ordered a second beer and disappeared for some time outside where other customers were seated, but she had left the book at her place at the bar. I was curious but did not reach over to see the title. When some acquaintances spotted us at the bar, they moved to join us and eyed the empty seat. We explained that a patron had recently occupied that seat and still had her book there but whether that meant she had abandoned her space was unclear. Our friends temporarily took over the barstool and after some long time, the woman reappeared.

All necessary and appropriate words of apology and deferral were made by both parties, with the clear understanding that any barstool left unoccupied that long was actually fair territory, and she said that she had relocated outside but had only returned to reclaim her book. At that time, she showed us the book, Brick Lane by Monica Ali, and explained that she had become so enraptured that she couldn't resist reading it even in this social environment. We proceeded to have an interesting discussion about the book which some of us had read and she proceeded to read a passage aloud to share her enthusiasm for Ali's writing. We are huddled in a crowded bar, filled with happy, drinking and loud customers, with an Irish band going full tilt, unselfconsciously listening to a book reading by a woman standing next to us!

On the stroll home I shared both my wonder and my gratitude that I lived in a city where books are present, common, and important enough to be included in the fabric of everyday experience. I hadn't even browsed a bookstore and had still enjoyed a spontaneous and literary Sunday, complete with a walk in the park and Guinness!


  1. Great post! It's things like this that make me miss New York even more than I always do. By the way, the Monica Ali book is Brick Lane, and if you haven't read it, you should put it on your summer reading list. Another recommendation, in the vein of "young adult" books for old adult readers: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. It's is simply fantastic. I've got the sequel on my summer reading list.

  2. Thank you Lady Z. I have made the correction. Cousin Janna and I had an interesting conversation on the subway a few days ago with a woman carrying a "Book Culture" bookstore bag. I pointed out to her and to Janna that that was my daughter's favorite bookstore in NY but that it used to be called "Labyrinth." She knew the store by the old name as well and we talked about some changes that came along with the name change. In return for this nice subway encounter, she reminded us to change trains when an announcement came up that we missed because Janna and I were talking so much. A nice NY moment to share with (visitor from out-of-town) Janna. This helped make up for the scene of passenger rage that we had witnessed the day before that included a near fistfight between a subway engineer and a well-dressed businessman and a challenge by the passenger to the engineer to "get a real job, not just some job where you get to sit on your ass all day." Nice.