Tag Archives: Jonathan Galassi

Five Novels I’ve Read Set in New York

Rather like Berlin, a New York setting is catnip for me. I only need to spot it in a novel’s blurb and it’s on my list which is not always a good thing. I’ve only visited the city once but I think it’s more its almost mythical aura that attracts me rather than the actuality not that I didn’t love it when I was there. You can be sure that there’ll be a Berlin post in this series at some stage but for now, Cover imagehere are five of my favourite novels set in New York City, a couple with links to reviews on this blog.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse is all about the New York book world, neatly satisfying two obsessions for me. Paul Dukach conceives a lifelong passion for Ida Perkins’ poetry as a teenager. Thanks to the well-connected Morgan, Paul finds his way into publishing world, soon gaining a reputation for his sharp editorial eye. He’s offered a job by Homer Stern, the louche, foul-mouthed owner of one of the city’s two most revered literary publishing houses, its lists stuffed full of Nobel Prize winners, but it’s Homer’s rival, Sterling Wainwright, who has an iron grip on the rights to Perkins’ work. By the end of the book Paul will have fulfilled his wildest dreams but not without a twinge or two of conscience. A poet and one of the head honchos at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Galassi takes us into the world of literary publishing, replete with gossipy detail and sharply observed satire while posing questions about the nature of literary fame. A smart, funny novel written by a man who knows a thing or three about Paul’s world.

I fell in love with Brightness Falls to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. It’s the first in a trilogy which continued with the disappointing The Good Life and finished with Bright, Precious, Days. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway, a glittering New York couple. To their friends, theirs is the perfect marriage but when Russell is caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he’s the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal takes its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have on many others in New York City, from their friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities was often cited as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity.Cover image

Beginning in early 2001 Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children inhabits similar literary territory to Brightness Falls presenting a portrait of New York through the eyes of three thirty-year-old friends living in Manhattan. All of them once thought they had a bright future but none seems to have fulfilled that promise. Marina has spent the advance she was awarded and has returned home to live with her parents. Julius is subsidised by his boyfriend having failed to support himself with his reviews. Danielle is unemployed and involved with two men, one of whom is Marina’s literary critic father. The attacks of 9/11 throw all the cards up into the air for these three as it did for so many. Published several years after the atrocity, Messud’s novel captures the city both before and after this cataclysmic event in an immersive, satisfying novel.

Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side takes us from literary New York to residential Manhattan where Charlie is cock-a-hoop having secured a space in the parking lot of the cul-de-sac where he and Nora have lived for a couple of decades. Theirs is a tightly knit community, tolerant of George, its self-appointed overseer, given to pushing instructions through their letter boxes about what other residents should and should not do. This privileged set of householders looks to the likes of Ricky, the handyman, to keep things ticking over smoothly. One day a shocking act of violence rocks the street, setting off fault lines in relationships that will undermine some irretrievably. With its perceptive exploration of middle-aged marriage, Alternate Side inhabits quintessential Quindlen territory. Overly ambitious comparisons abound in publishers’ blurbs, but Quindlen’s writing really does rank alongside Elizabeth Strout’s and AnnTyler’s for me. If you haven’t yet read her work, I hope you’ll give her try.

Cover imageKathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk takes us on a tour of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984 in the company of an 85-year-old who arrived in New York in the ’30s, beginning her career as a lowly copywriter for Macy’s and ending it as the world’s highest paid woman in advertising. Lillian’s evening has not gone as planned. Instead she decides to go for a stroll, telling us her life story as she walks and through it the story of half a century of New York’s history, encompassing the Jazz Age, the Great Depression and AIDS. I loved this novel which is, apparently, based on the story of Margaret Fishback. Lillian is a wonderfully witty and engaging character. Rooney’s book has a charmingly old-fashioned feel about it which seems a satisfying note to end on for me.

What about you – any favourite New York City novels you’d like to recommend?

Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Adventures in the publishing world

Cover imageI’d been looking forward to Jonathan Galassi’s novel, smacking my lips over the idea of a treat not to mention an escape from the ‘hell in a hand cart’ news we seemed to be drowning in. It’s all about the book world and what could be more comforting than that? Paul Dukach, the misfit in a family of beefy athletes, conceives a lifelong passion for Ida Perkins’ poetry as a teenager. By the end of the book Paul will have fulfilled his wildest dreams but not without a twinge or two of conscience. Galassi is a poet and one of the head honchos at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He knows a thing or three about Paul’s world.

Thanks to the well-connected Morgan, who introduces him to Ida’s work, Paul finds his way into the New York publishing world, soon gaining a reputation for his sharp editorial eye. He’s offered a job by Homer Stern, the louche, foul-mouthed owner of Purcell and Stern, one of the city’s two most revered literary publishing houses, its lists stuffed full of Nobel Prize winners. Paul would like nothing more than to publish Ida’s poetry but Homer’s rival, Sterling Wainwright, has an iron grip on the rights to it. Over the years, as Paul gains a reputation as one of New York’s finest editors, he becomes Sterling’s friend, privy to his stories about Ida and fellow poet Arnold Outerbridge, one of her many lovers. Through Sterling, Paul is given an introduction to his idol and after an afternoon spent listening to her stories finds himself presented with an astonishing proposition which pitches him onto the horns of a dilemma. Galassi’s smart, funny novel takes us into the world of literary publishing, replete with gossipy detail and sharply observed satire while posing questions about the nature of literary fame.

Beginning with a brief biography of Ida Perkins and ending with a bibliography of her work, Muse had me half-believing that I might somehow have managed not to hear about this celebrated poet. Of course, she doesn’t exist – a bit like the theremin playing Lena in The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt and just as cleverly drawn. Nothing like an insider to poke the sharpest fun and there’s a good deal to amuse here – thumbnail (possibly heartfelt) sketches of egotistical, needy authors; a biting description of the Frankfurt book fair that may raise a few blushes in publishing circles – with sharply funny lines peppered throughout. Paul’s moral dilemma is a little too conveniently resolved but that said it’s a brilliant piece of entertainment for anyone who’s interested in the machinations of the book world. Had I been an American there would have been the added spice of working out who was who although when Medusa rears its ugly head you don’t need to be a genius to realise who Galassi has in his sights. Hugely entertaining, then, and a much-needed escape for me. Poets who wince at the line: ‘Who was it who said the reason there’s so much backbiting among poets is because there’s so little at stake’ can take comfort from the knowledge that it was Kissinger and he was talking about academics rather than poets. It’s often quoted in this house.

Paperbacks to Look Out For in July 2016

Cover imageI’ll start July’s paperback selection with my favourite of the three I’ve already read. Set in Morocco, Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty takes us on a nail-biting journey wondering what our resourceful protagonist will come up with next. Exhausted after her long sleepless flight and preoccupied by problems at home, she finds herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare with no ID, credit cards cancelled and no cash after her backpack is snatched. When, after a fretful night, the chief of police hands her a black backpack she accepts it knowing that it’s not hers, nor is the passport or the credit cards she finds in it, but seeing a way out of her predicament. What follows is a somewhat improbable but thoroughly entertaining sequence of events as our nameless protagonist slides deeper and deeper into a quagmire of lies.

Vida’s writing was new to me but I’ve been reading Andrew Miller’s novels since the publication of his excellent debut, Ingenious Pain. He’s never quite matched that for me but it hasn’t stopped me looking forward to whatever he comes up with next. The Crossing opens with a young man and woman repairing a boat, both members of their university sailing club. They’re not a couple but Tim has it in the back of his mind that he’ll sleep with Maud before too long. Suddenly, Maud flips off the boat and lands on her head – for one long moment it seems she’s dead – then she gets up and walks away. Tim somehow feels responsible following her home and later conceiving a passion for her. Written in short, crisp sentences from which the occasional startlingly sharp image leaps out, The Crossing feels very different from any of Miller’s previous novels. It had me gripped throughout but left me puzzled.Cover image

Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, is also about a marriage but not just any old run-of-the-mill, everyday sort of marriage: Lotto and Mathilde are a shiny beacon of the perfect relationship but as we all know that can’t be true. The novel’s two-part structure – first the Fates then the Furies – sets us up for dramatic revelations, presenting an apparently idyllic relationship seen through both parties’ very different eyes. It’s stuffed full of little side stories, some of which go nowhere, some of which are picked up again and sewn neatly in. Groff’s baggy, extravagant, almost baroque writing is the antithesis of the spare elegance I so admire in the likes of Colm Tóibin, Kent Haruf and John McGahern yet there’s something about it that sucks me in. Not an unalloyed joy – it’s far too long – but it’s an absorbing, intriguing novel.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse looks irresistible: its setting, subject and jacket tick all the boxes for me. Paul Dukach is in line to take over one of the last independent publishing houses in New York and is being shown the ropes, from navigating the choppy waters of the Frankfurt book fair to the wooing of authors renowned for their delicate egos. Paul has become obsessed with Ida Perkins, a star of literary New York, whose lover and longtime publisher is Paul’s boss’s biggest rival. ‘Enriched by juicy details only a quintessential insider could know, written with both satiric sharpness and sensitivity, Muse is a love letter to the people who write, sell – and, above all, read – the books that shape our lives’ says the publisher. See what I mean by irresistible…

Cover imageEnding on a very different note, Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing takes us to rural East Prussia in January 1945 where the wealthy von Globigs have hidden themselves away from the horrors taking place on their doorstep. When they take in a stranger it seems that they will finally have to face the consequences of the war. ‘Profoundly evocative of the period, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end’ says the publisher. The novel is translated by Anthea Bell which makes it well worth a look for me.

That’s it for July. As ever, if you’d like to know more a click on a title will take you to my review for the novels I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I haven’t. if you’d like to catch up with the hardback selections they’re here and here.