Classics Club Spin #17: The Long-Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker by Maeve Brennan #ccspin

Sometimes I think that inside New York there is a Wooden Horse struggling desperately to get out, but more often these days I think of New York as the capsized city. Half-capsized, anyway, with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.

Even after more than twenty-five years the long-winded lady cannot think of herself as a “real” New Yorker. If she has a title, it is one held by many others, that of a traveler in residence. As a traveler she is interested in what she sees, but she is not very curious, not even inquisitive. She is not a sightseer, never an explorer… She is drawn to what she recognizes, or half-recognizes, and these forty-seven pieces are the record of forty-seven moments of recognition.

51auvQaKFML._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_My first Classics Club Spin (I joined back in February) was a mixed bag. The late Irish-born writer Maeve Brennan intrigues me, so I am glad that I read her collection of essays about living in New York City in the 1950’s and 1960’s, The Long Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker. These were originally published as pieces in the magazine for which she worked for more than 30 years as as staff writer. I found the experience of reading the collection in a few weeks’ time to be challenging, despite its short length. I tried to space them out by reading one or two a day at the most, but they still started to blend together for me. Many of them are set in restaurants, observations of the people eating and drinking and the staff. Many of them are about buildings being torn down in favor of “progress.” There is a palpable sense of transience about the collection as a whole, of a city in flux, a time of great social change. Most of the essays are indeed about small moments between two people, whether between people Brennan observes or between Brennan and someone else.

Brennan is a talented observer and chronicler of human foibles and quirks. She has a way with words. In one piece I liked, “Balzac’s Favorite Food,” she writes of peacefully browsing a book shop, just starting to read about something that Balzac would mix into sardines that he mashed on bread, when she was interrupted by a group of obnoxious interlopers.

…I took off my glasses to get a look at them. Cruelty and Stupidity and Bad Noise – there were three of them, a man and a woman and another, but I did not see the third, who was hidden behind the tall spindle bookcase they were all looking at and making merry over. They called out names and titles, and made a lot of feeble puns, ruining the place for everybody, and I paid for the books I had under my arm, and left. I walked over to Le Steak de Paris and asked for sardines and plain bread, but when I began to mash the sardines, I couldn’t remember what it was that Balzac used to mix them with. It didn’t matter. Sardines with plain bread are very good. I said to myself that there was no use thinking about the hyenas in the bookshop. Their capacity for arousing violence will arouse somebody who is violent one of these days.

She decides she will go back to the bookshop that night, find the book, and before the night is through she will know precisely how Balzac’s favorite food tastes.

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121 Charles St.

Another essay I liked, one that sent me off the Google to do some research, is “The Farmhouse That Moved Downtown.” And old farmhouse, really old, like 200 years old, was about to be torn down for a nursing home, so the then owners decided to save it and move it by truck to the Village! (It still stands today, as far as I can tell, and you can read about it here and here if you like. Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and other children’s books, once lived there!)

It was a very tiny house – much smaller than I had expected. That must have been a very small farmer who built it. It was sitting up high on a sturdy cage or raft, of heavy wooden beams, on a wedge-shaped, weedy lot, with the old brick warehouses towering over it like burly nursemaids. It was a crooked little house – askew on its perch but crooked anyway – and it looked as plain and as insubstantial as a child’s chalk drawing, but it was a real house, with a real door, and a flat roof with a chimney sticking out of it.

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Image from The Guardian

 

But by far my favorite essay was “I Wish For A Little Street Music” (1968) which starts out bemoaning the humdrum and depressing state of the people along Broadway. (“I thought to myself: All these people are sheep, and I am a sheep.”) But then she spies a middle-aged father and teenage son reunion that tugs at the heart strings (and me me absolutely BAWL, I might add!)

The father stared admiringly up at his son, hearing every word, and you could see that what he longed for was to have the chance, just once again, to pick his child up and walk a few steps with him in his arms. And it would have taken very little to cause that boy to embrace his father and whirl him around in the air. What a funny trick Time had played on those two – or was it a trick of Light that made the son so big while the father remained the size he had been? It was as thought some cameraman had enlarged a picture of the child and left the father life-size. 

…Maybe they went to the Howard Johnson’s at Forty-sixth Street. That is a nice place, especially if you get near the window, so that you can look out at the crowd passing and see that at a little distance there are no sheep on Broadway.

So while I did enjoy the essays, and some of them very much, overall I felt relieved when I finished the collection. This is probably more to do with the time constraints of having to get this read and written about by the end of April for The Classics Club than flaws in the material itself. If I’d spread this collection out for a few months instead of weeks I may have ended up giving it a higher rating. So I hope that if you are at all interested in essays about New York City, if you want a glimpse into what it may have been like (for a professional white woman) in the 1950’s and 1960’s, if you are a fan of Brennan’s fiction, then please do give this one a try. There is much here to admire.

 

 

 

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

So they sat beneath the statue of Christopher Columbus, side by side, hand in hand, surrounded by skateboarders and young lovers  and homeless people, looking north as cars came around the circle and went up Central Park West.  The spring air was crisper than she would have wished, but not crisp enough to send her rushing into the subway.  And even if it had been, she would have stayed in the circle, because it wasn’t every night she got a chance to enjoy the sounds of the city and its millions of lights blinking around her, reminding her that she was still living her dream.

fc9ef780abf3d053a5beb8a9289d2ec9I waffled a bit in the middle of reading Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers. As I wrote in a previous post, there was a moment when the pace lagged a bit, when I wasn’t sure it was holding my interest.  But I wanted to finish the novel, and I am so glad that I did.  I ended up giving it four stars on Goodreads.  It was a book that surprised me with its simple, quiet beauty and its wistful emotional tone.

It’s the story of the Jonga family from Cameroon, a husband (Jende,) wife (Neni) and their six year-old son, living and trying to make it in New York City.  Jende’s cousin Winston has come to America some time before, and is now a successful lawyer.  He sponsored Jende’s visa and tried to help him acclimate to the culture shock.  Jende worked and saved as a taxi driver and was able to bring his family to America;  Neni, hoping to become a pharmacist, has a student visa.  As the novel opens it’s 2008.  Through Winston’s connections Jende is hired as the chauffeur of Clark, a top banking executive at Lehmann Brothers on Wall Street.  Clark and Jende get along so well that Clark’s wife Cindy ends up hiring Neni to work for her as well as a part-time caregiver to their son, Mighty. Things are going well, and the Jonga family’s standard of living improves.  Over time, both Jongas become witness to troubles in the Edwards family.  Their wealth and privilege conceals great loneliness and disconnection.  As Lehmann Brothers implodes, the lives of both families are thrown into turmoil.  Both Jende and Neni make questionable decisions as their family’s security is threatened.

It was easy to relate to Jende and Neni – they worked hard, saved willingly, and wanted to provide a better future for their family. They enjoyed the material and cultural gifts that living in New York City could provide, even as they marveled at how much money people spent on things here, and what that same amount would purchase back home in Cameroon.

She hadn’t expected the prices in New York to be the same as in Limbe, but she found it difficult not to be bothered whenever she bought a pound of shrimp for the equivalent of 5000 CFA francs – the monthly rent for a room with a shared outdoor bathroom and toilet for all the residents in a caraboat building.  You have to stop comparing prices, Jende advised her whenever she brought up the issue.  You keep comparing prices like that, he’d say, you’ll never buy anything in America.  The best thing to do in this country, whenever you enter a store, is to ignore the exchange rate, ignore the advertisements, ignore what everyone else is eating and drinking and talking about these days, and buy only the things you need.

Their struggle to achieve the “American Dream,” to stay here in this country and try for a better life, even if it meant doing some things that compromised their dignity – this moved me greatly.  Learning a little bit about Cameroon (a country I admit that I am woefully ignorant about) and placing myself in the Jendes’s shoes made me reflect on my own unearned blessings, simply by random luck of birthplace.

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          Mbue

It would have been easy for Mbue to portray Clark and Cindy Edwards as heartless, mindless buffoons, but she gave them shades of complexity and depth.  They were undoubtedly wealthy people by any standards, but they were not cruel or mean-spirited; rather, they seemed a bit clueless about the way the rest of the world lived.  I especially enjoyed the rapport that Jende and Clark had.  There is a lovely scene where both men sit on a bench in Hudson River Park and watch the sunset together.  I was surprised by how much Clark opened up to Jende.  Sadly, it seemed that he could talk to Jende in a way that he couldn’t connect with his wife.

Mbue puts very human faces on complicated issues of immigration and class privilege in America.  Good fiction is one of the best tools we have to foster empathy among people of different countries, races, and economic classes. How I wish I could make certain politicians read this compassionate, humane, emotionally intelligent novel!  How I wish that more Americans read immigrants’ stories, both fictional and biographical, period. But I can try to take solace in recommending this particular novel to library patrons and to you, dear blog reader.  It is engaging literary fiction with appealing characters and plenty of questionable choices to ponder and debate.  It would make an excellent pick for a book club.  I now want to read and learn more about Cameroon, and I eagerly await Ms. Mbue’s next book.

 

 

 

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

I came to love the Williamsburg Bridge, once I learned how to walk it.  I was mostly alone, a few all-weather bikers, a few heavily bundled Hasidic women.  I walked either in some dusky circumference of gray light or some blotchy, cottoned afternoon.  It never failed to move me.  I paused in the middle of the filthy river.  I stared at the trash eddying in currents and clinging to docks like wine dregs cling to a glass.  Simone had mentioned the orphan’s dinner as Howard’s to me.  I thought of them all up there at Howard’s on the Upper West Side.  I thought of Jake in a Christmas sweater.  I told them I was busy.  Remember this, I told myself.  Remember how quiet today is.  I had the newspaper, which I would keep for years, and I was on my way to lunch in Chinatown by myself.  As I contemplated the skyline this double feeling came to me as one though, pressing in from either side of the bridge, impossible for me to reconcile: It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave.

Have you ever read a book with a full awareness all the time of how other people might hate it?  While I was reading Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter I kept thinking, “I shouldn’t like this as much as I do.”  The main character, a twenty-two year-old named Tess, consistently makes such poor choices. She’s kind of a blank slate as well, and we don’t learn very much about her past at all.  Pretty much every person in the novel is messed up in some way.  There’s really not much plot.  And yet I couldn’t stop reading.

41fe52droflI’ve never been a server, I can’t really cook, I don’t consider myself to possess a particularly refined palate, and still I find myself drawn to books and television shows about food and drink. Sweetbitter is set in New York City, which hits another one of my bookish buttons.  It is divided into four seasonal sections, beginning with summer 2006.  Tess has left an unnamed place, a place she only describes by evoking “the twin pillars of football and church, the low faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs, mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts.”  Tess’s past is not really important in this story.  Instead we jump with her into the deep end of big-city, high-end restaurant business, and into the extraordinarily messy social lives of her co-workers, most of whom have been there for years.

She becomes fascinated with Simone, a senior server, and Jake, a bartender. They have an obvious and ineffable connection with one another, and despite being aware of that, Tess develops a raging crush on Jake.  Simone, who is in her thirties,  takes Tess under her wing, teaching her about wine and food and giving advice about life.  Tess comes to trust her and depend upon her as a sort of mother figure, all the while becoming closer and closer to Jake.

She cut me a piece of cheese and handed it to me – “The Dorset,” she said – and it tasted like butter but dirtier, and maybe like the chanterelles she kept touching.  She handed me a grape and when I bit it I found the seeds with me tongue and moved them to the side, spit them into my hand.  I saw purple vines fattening in the sun.

“It’s like the seasons, but in my mouth,” I said.  She humored me.  She cracked whole walnuts with a pair of silver nutcrackers.  The skins on the nuts felt like gossamer wrappings.  She brushed the scattered skins onto the floor, with the grape sees, the pink cheese rinds.

Let’s be generous and say that I understood about seventy percent of what Simone said to me.  What I didn’t misunderstand was the attention that she gave me.  Or that by being close to her, I was always in proximity to him.  There was an aura that came from being under her wing, with its exclusive wine tastings and cheese courses – the aura of promised meaning.

I mentioned bad choices earlier.  There is so much cocaine, so much alcohol flowing through these pages, so many casual and not so casual sexual escapades and heartbreaks. Thwarted ambitions, people using one another, people tethered to one another and to the restaurant in unhealthy ways.  But there is also the energy and the life of the nightly dance of cook, server, and guest, the camaraderie of going to the same bar with your co-workers every night, the thrill of learning to exist as an adult in New York City.  This is really a coming of age story.  I thought of myself at 22, fresh out of college, so lost without the structure of school, my identity so unformed.  I found myself feeling sympathy for Tess as she blunders on the job and in pursuit of love.  She makes bad choices, but damn it, she owns them.

Isn’t this what you dreamed of, Tess, when you got in your car and drove?  Didn’t you run away to find a world worth falling in love with, saying you didn’t care if it loved you back?

Danler’s writing is exquisite.  It hums and vibrates and pulled me along effortlessly.  I found myself picking up the book at every spare moment, and when I had to put it down again it was with unwilling resignation.  In this time of my technology-induced short attention span, I can’t tell you the last time I had this immersive experience of reading.  I know that some may find this author pretentious, or the plot boring, or Tess utterly unlikable. As for me, I simply lost myself in this world – a world I don’t want to inhabit in real life, but found so beautifully rendered that I couldn’t take my eyes from.