1776

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Brooklyn Volleys

I borrowed my roommate’s issue of New York Magazine to occupy myself with some light reading on the subway this week. Also residing in my bag, my copy of David McCullough’s 1776, which I discussed briefly here last time. There is a big difference between a Pulitzer-winning non-fiction book and a somewhat glossy bi-weekly periodical, but I managed to draw a series of connections between things I read in both. As I moved through the tunnels, my thoughts turned to the place I call home, Brooklyn, whose land lies mostly buried beneath generations of concrete and brownstone. In The Lay of The Land, the first book that I ever reviewed here, Richard Ford’s narrator, Frank Bascombe, is uniquely attuned to the connection between his physical environment and his own personal history. He recognizes that the land around him is constantly being reshaped by the forces of progress, and struggles with the question of what within himself can be reshaped, and what within himself is essential, permanent. He is a real estate agent. Is there anything that New Yorkers enjoy discussing more than real estate? The Mets and Yankees perhaps (and there’s a real estate connection there as well: New York’s baseball teams will both move into new stadiums in ’09). But we’ll get to baseball in a bit. The big question these days in NYC, and the cover story of the latest New York Magazine, is “Are the boom times ready to go bust in the city?” We know what has happened all over the country with the collapse of the sub-prime loan industry, but New York’s real estate market remains robust. After consulting a panel of experts, writer Michael Idov concludes that things could get a little dicey in the next few years, but that New York land will remain a sound investment. Over in Brooklyn, the boom is practically audible. Walk the streets of Park Slope, Carrol Gardens, Fort Greene, Bed Stuy, Bushwick, or Williamsburg and you will scarcely find a single block free of some form of construction or renovation. But there was a time when the resonant boom in Brooklyn was not that of construction work, but actual cannon fire. Then, as now, Brooklyn was very valuable, though mostly uninhabited. Its value was strategic: Brooklyn was the setting for the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, August 27, 1776. It was a bloody day, carried decisively by the British. But the Battle of Brooklyn showed that the young Americans were up to the challenge. McCullough describes how a small force of Maryland militia men held off an entire British regiment on the Gowanus road near a stone farmhouse as their comrades beat a frantic retreat through the marsh. The Old Stone House, as it is called, still stands there at the corner of 5th Avenue and 3rd Street in Park Slope. The Marsh is now the hopelessly polluted Gowanus canal. Ahh, progress… So there’s history in Brooklyn – tell us something we don’t know. Okay then; back to baseball. New York Magazine writer Sam Anderson to Brooklyn Dodgers fans: drop dead. Ouch. This is the message of his article entitled Burying the Brooklyn Dodgers. His thesis? The Dodgers skipped town, abandoning the beloved Ebbets Field 50 years ago, because you people were too busy letting your borough be trashed by an influx of racial strife and an outflow of industry – and conscientious baseball fans – and should thus pipe down about your erstwhile baseball team, which beat a retreat to the comfortable ethnic paradise of Los Angeles. Mr. Anderson admits that he is a Brooklyn neophyte. For him, the departure of the Dodgers typified Brooklyn’s “slow decline into irrelevance,” and “the death of mythic old Brooklyn itself,” because it corresponded to the borough falling on economic hard times. Mythic Old Brooklyn is here disturbingly related to a concept of mythic white Brooklyn, as though the story of immigrants moving to Brooklyn was a respectable one at the turn of the 20th century, but not in the 1960s. And certainly not now, when the Brooklyn Boom signifies, for Mr. Anderson, nothing more than a “Manhattan-ization” of the borough. He manages to both condemn Brooklyn’s 70s and 80s “nosedive” into “gang violence, heroin, race riots, arson, homelessness, crack” (heroin and crack!), and at the same time sniff at Brooklyn’s “renewed cultural relevance, unprecedented diversity, [and] Leave It To Beaver murder rate” of today. I suppose by this last he means to imply that Brooklyn has gone soft. One thing is certain, he would be a plain fool to imply the same about the price of its average property. Jackie Robinson? Nevah Hoidov’im. The capper to Anderson’s article is his pilgrimage to the site of old Ebbets Field, where the Dodgers used to play ball. It’s now a high-rise housing project down the road from Grand Army Plaza and adjacent to Prospect Park. Mr. Anderson is disappointed to report that, on his visit there, which he describes in terms of a Catholic missionary traveling far inland of the Congo river, there were “no long conversations with locals about baseball and race relations and 21st century demography and life in the Caribbean.” We have no word on why no one there at the corner of Franklin Ave. and Empire Boulevard wanted to rap with Mr. Anderson about Ebbets Field. But one thing is clear: Mr. Anderson does not understand progress, nor does he respect the power of memory, nor history itself. Mr. Anderson would have us believe that the fact that Ebbets Field is now an ugly public housing building (as is the Polo Grounds, where the NY Baseball Giants used to play, at the northern knife-handle of Manhattan), is the equivalent of a Civil War battlefield becoming the site of a strip mall. So I’m left to suppose that to Mr. Anderson, the Battle of Brooklyn means less and less. After all, it was fought on what is now bagel joints, tire shops, faux thrift stores, and homes. Maybe if he had a bit more Frank Bascombe in him he would understand that time marches on and it is up to those that were there – and those that care to know about who was there – to remember and celebrate the things that happened, what they meant at the time and what they mean now. Soul is as real as body, and memory is as permanent as stone.

Confessions of a Non-Linear Reader (What’s That Book About?)

I used to be a monogamist. I honored that voice in my head that intoned “Thou shalt read just one book at a time” (it was the voice of my high school English teacher, Ms. Denize.) But something happened to me this summer – some unnoticed change took place – and now here I am reading no less than six books at once. Like juggling multiple girlfriends, it’s no easy task: I’m like a squirrel storing up nuts. I wonder if I might be preparing for a long winter of making love to War and Peace or something.In any case, here is the list of the books that currently lie unfinished at my bedside, in no particular order, along with some thoughts on each.Preston Falls by David Gates: My fellow Millionaire, Garth, introduced me to this book and its author. Who is this Gates? Apparently he’s a culture writer for Newsweek, a writing professor at Bennington, and a Pulitzer nominee for his first novel, Jernigan, back in 1991. Never has midlife crisis been so funny, or so extreme, as it is in Preston Falls. Gates goes deep between the ears of his two main characters, Willis and Jean, mining their thoughts for the plentiful deposits of self-defeatism, marital angst, parenting missteps, etc., that reside there. Like Willis’s ’74 Dodge pickup, his “hillbilly shitheap par excellence,” which he bought to show solidarity with the locals in their vacation town of Preston Falls (though they will always know he’s a poser), the wheels are coming off this cozy suburban family. It’s a car crash in slow motion but I can hardly turn away.Old School by Tobias Wolff: What can we say about Tobias Wolff? He’s like a wealthy benefactor, keeping us content with his avuncular offerings of solid prose. Set on the idyllic close of a New England prep school, Old School tracks the main character, an aspiring writer, through the evolution of his literary consciousness. In somewhat fantastic fashion, great writers visit the school in rapid succession. Robert Frost is followed, interestingly, by Ayn Rand, and the proclamations that issue from their mouths act as a sort of blueprint for writing, Frost in the affirmative, “‘Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stub-toe cry… You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry,'” Rand in the negative, “‘What you find in Hemingway is everything that is wrong with the so-called literature of this country. Weak premises. Weak defeated people.'” The narrator, formerly entranced by The Fountainhead, is shocked by the revelation of Rand’s naked misanthropy. Supposedly Hemingway, the boy’s hero, is on the way…Nick’s Trip by George P. Pelecanos: I had just moved and was lovingly establishing my modest library on its new shelves. I picked up this book, which I read years ago and which inspired me to consume the entire Pelecanos collection like a binging crime-noir junkie, and dove right in. With respect to Walter Mosely and Elmore Leonard, George P. is tops in my book. I’m from D.C., where his books take place, and thus biased. But for more evidence of Pelecanos’s prowess, travel up I-95 a short ways to Baltimore, where the HBO series The Wire is set. Pelecanos acts as writer and producer for the show, which Salon.com recently pitted against The Sopranos for the title of greatest T.V. show of all time.1776 by David McCullough: I thought a bit of non-fiction might go well with this smorgasbord. McCullough’s work is considered one of the finest and most accessible accounts of the Revolutionary War (and it did garner the author a Pulitzer). Patriots are cool, Lobster Backs suck, and George Washington? Fuhgeddaboudit; he’s the man. Currently I am reading about the Battle of Brooklyn, which constituted the first costly loss for the Continental Army, and is of particular interest to me because I live in Brooklyn and thus tread daily on the same ground as those soldiers. I wonder who wins in the end. Guess I’ll have to keep reading.Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s new novel, Tree of Smoke, is getting major play right now, and so it was fortuitous that a friend lent me this little book, which is a collection of short stories, because I had never read him. Johnson’s approach is as subtle as a shotgun blast. The writing is spare, the language stark, the stories possessed of a simple, dark beauty. An admirer of Hubert Selby, Jr. and Leonard Michaels, I guess I’m predisposed to liking Denis Johnson too. The first story, “Car Crash,” is exceptional.Three Years by Anton Chekhov: I picked up The Complete Short Novels of Chekhov because I had never read him and often heard him described as the greatest writer of short fiction. Ever. I was drawn to this particular story, Three Years because of themes relating to love and happiness, or the lack thereof, but have so far found it to be less impressive than I expected. I appreciate Chekhov’s writing, the facility with words, the pacing of phrase and meticulous form, but something about the writing seems a bit clinical (Chekhov was, after all, a physician). Not stilted, but perhaps a bit dear:He again clutched the parasol to his breast and said softly, unexpectedly for himself, not recognizing his own voice: “If you would consent to be my wife, I’d give anything. I’d give anything… There’s no price, no sacrifice I wouldn’t go to.”She gave a start and looked at him in surprise and fear.”What are you saying!” she said, turning pale. “It’s impossible, I assure you. Forgive me.”Then quickly, with the same rustling of her dress, she went further up and disappeared through the door.This should be an emotional scene, but it struck me as a little bit hollow, and I’m hoping that the work of this titan of modern literature grows on me.So there you have it, quite a gathering of authors. It occurs to me that I need to round out this group with a female writer or two. Maybe Emily will lend me her copy of the new Harry Potter

Surprise Me!

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