Thursday, October 08, 2015

The pleasure of reading a good book review

"Contrary to what newcomers to the city may imagine, New York is a place where circles almost never intersect, except transactionally - at co-op meetings and parent-teacher conferences, or on jury duty.  New Yorkers circulate mostly within their own class and occupational orbits.  Manhattan is a hundred small towns unevenly distributed over some twenty-two square miles of city space."

This is part of a paragraph early on in Louis Menand's review of the much promoted new novel "City on Fire" in the New Yorker.  Menand is an immediate must read whenever one of his book reviews or essays appears in the magazine.  If a book review can be stunning, this one is.

"City on Fire" is set in 1970's New York.  Menand's description of the state of Manhattan at that time evokes memories of personal experience, some of it not too terrific, some of it exceptional.  Can being stabbed and robbed in a Times Square hotel room be called "not too terrific"?  Can late night walking haphazardly on deserted downtown streets with no streetlights and ending up at the legendary jazz club Slugs be called "exceptional"?  Going through the Times Square area at that time after alighting from the bus station at 42nd St. and going north on 8th avenue could lead to a menacing walk that required looking straight ahead and ignoring taunts.  The place felt as if it was out of control.

Menand picks up the tenor of that time and ties it in with the book being reviewed.  He mentions the danger of course, but he also mentions a thriving arts and music scene in the midst of it.  As this apparent "detective story" intertwines the lives of many, it requires a "suspension of disbelief" on Menand's description of the real Manhattan.  "City of Light", as a novel, is allowed to do that and apparently takes advantage of this to detail the lives of many different types of people who live in the muck and barely suppressed chaos of Manhattan at that time.

The novel ends with the blackout of 1977, which is described with a good reporter's style insight. The review then moves to a comparison of the Manhattan of today to differentiate the time we live in now.

At 944 pages, "City of Light" will not likely be read in full here.  Menand sees the first 131 pages of the book as suspenseful and gripping in every way  and more or less suggests that they are worth any reader's attention.  Otherwise he says that the book is 400 pages too long.  Still, he praises the writing style of the author Garth Risk Hallberg.  In a sense he is saying try it.  Get a feel for the time.  Then he writes, "you can always close the book".  This is one to pick up at the library some day.


Blogger John Landes said...

My wife has already put this one on her Kindle. She chooses her downloads on a cents per page valuation metric. At 944 pages this looks like a great value!

10:32 AM  

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