One-Minute Book Reviews

September 15, 2008

A Guide to New York That’s Worth Waiting on Line for

Filed under: Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:26 pm
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AIA Guide to New York City: Fourth Edition. New York Chapter/American Institute of Architects. By Norval White and Elliot Willensky. Three Rivers, 1,056 pages, $37.50, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

No urban guidebook has brought more joy to my life than the American Institute of Architects’ AIA Guide to New York City, my indispensable companion when I lived in New York. This modern classic is the definitive street-by-street and building-by-building guide to the five boroughs, illustrated with thousands of clear postage-stamp–sized black-and-white photographs.

No matter where you are in the city, you can look up your spot, read about it, and, often as not, find something surprising or wonderful nearby. The authors focus on what is most interesting about the architecture of each building they include. But they can pack a remarkable amount of social, cultural and historical background into their pithy and opinionated descriptions. They write of 867 Madison Avenue, the site of the former Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo House and current Ralph Lauren flagship store:

“Every part of this building exudes personality: bay windows, a roof line bristling with dormers and chimneys. The extraordinarily ornamented neo-French Renaissance limestone palace has captured the imagination of the commercial world since 1921, when it was first occupied by an antiques firm. It has subsequently housed interior decorators, auction houses like Christie’s of London, the Zabar family’s East Side outpost E.A.T., and now fashion designer Ralph Lauren’s flagship retail outlet. Rhinelander Waldo, socialite, hero of the Spanish-American War, and police commissioner can be observed ‘in action’ in the novel and movie Ragtime.”

Last revised during the Giuliani administration, the AIA Guide to New York City has some out-of-date material. But it hardly matters when it has so much that you can’t find anywhere else in such a compact and appealing form. The Michelin Green Guide to New York City is better for tourists and new residents who want a guide to the city’s landmarks. But if you say “wait on line” instead of “wait in line” and wouldn’t dream of referring to Sixth Avenue as “Avenue of the Americas,” this is your book.

Best line: White and Willensky are unafraid to show a little New York attitude, and their book is times as entertaining as it is authoritative. The entry for Tavern on the Green says: “The entrance to this chronically remodeled eating-drinking-dancing spot, built around Central Park’s 1870 sheepfold, is at 67th Street and Central Park West. Expensive. (At night the trees, wrapped to the roots in their minilights, suggest an invasion of bulb people.)”

Worst line: Some of us will forever miss a few of the vanished factoids of the first edition. Among them: the egg cream – a drink that used to be as much of a New York culinary staple as the Coney Island hot dog – contains neither egg nor cream.

Recommendation? A great gift for anybody who loves art, architecture, antiques or history as much as New York City.

Furthermore: There are AIA Guides of varying quality to other major cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis and St. Paul. The AIA Guide to New York City is the gold standard in the field.

Links: New York Times article on the making of the AIA Guide to New York City query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9407E3D61638F931A1575BC0A96F958260; Michelin Green Guide to New York City www.langenscheidt.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=3184.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

March 11, 2008

Jay McInerney Satirizes New Yorker-Style Fact-Checking in ‘Bright Lights, Big City,’ A Defining Novel of the 1980s

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 am
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The book that put spring in the step of the phrase “Bolivian marching powder”

A lot of people have suggested that book publishers need to adopt the system used in the fact-checking department at The New Yorker, where Jay McInerney worked briefly. How does it work? McInerney sends up fact-checking — among many other things — with sardonic verve in Bright Lights, Big City (Vintage, 1984), his satirical tale of a young Manhattanite who by day works for an elite magazine and by night seeks relief from the pretension in drug-fueled revels. (This book put spring in the step of the phrase “Bolivian marching powder.”) Along with Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Bright Lights, Big City helped set the tone of fiction in the 1980s and may be McInerney’s best book. Among its virtues: It shows the rare, successful use of second-person narration in a novel. That device works partly because it suggests its anti-hero’s estrangement from himself: He’s alienated enough from his life that he sees himself not as an “I” but as a “you.”

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 2, 2007

Marjorie Hart’s ‘Summer at Tiffany,’ a Lovely Memoir of Manhattan in the Time of ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’

Remembering when Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich shopped at the famous jewelry store

Summer at Tiffany. By Marjorie Hart. Morrow, 258 pp., $14.95.

By Janice Harayda

This lovely memoir is a gardenia on the lapel of this summer’s nonfiction. Marjorie Hart grew up in a Midwestern town so small that she “had no idea what street I’d lived on until years after I had finished college.” But in the summer of 1945 she and a sorority sister at the University of Iowa set out, like Dorothy and Toto, for New York City, determined to find work as salesgirls. Turned down by Lord & Taylor, they talked their way into jobs as the first female pages at Tiffany & Co., which couldn’t hire enough men because of World War II.

That alone might have been a story, but there was more to it. Hart started work at the jewelry store at a shimmering moment. New York was still reeling from the euphoria brought on by the end of the war in Europe and would soon erupt again when the Japanese surrendered. The air was full of Chanel No. 5, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and Walter Winchell’s radio broadcasts. Hart was there for all of it and restores to it some of the romance that has leached through overexposure out of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s great photo “V-J Day Sailor and Nurse.” (That picture doesn’t show you, as her book does, people ripping up their telephone books and tossing them out windows). Hart tells charming stories of seeing Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich a Tiffany’s, falling in love with a midshipman who bought her a gardenia at Jack Dempsey’s Broadway bar, and rushing to try to see a plane that had crashed into the Empire State Building.

But Summer at Tiffany is equally memorable for its loving account of the last time Americans stood united in joy, not sorrow over an assassination or terrorist attack. Some people must still find it hard to stay dry-eyed when they remember the day the Queen Mary hove into the New York harbor carrying thousands of soldiers returning from Europe who, as they streamed down the gangplank, were greeted by a band playing “Don’t Fence Me In.”

Best line: Hart’s account of waiting in Times Square for the announcement of the end of the war in the Pacific on the electric ribbon of news circling Times Tower:

“Suddenly, at three minutes after seven, the big screen went dark. The crowd seemed to pause momentarily in anticipation. When the lights came on the screen read:

“***OFFICIAL***TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER

“A thunderous roar rose from the crowd. Church bells pealed, air-raid sirens wailed, cars honked, tugboats tooted, firecrackers explored and people cheered as confetti and paper fell from the windows. Near me, an old man threw his cane in the air.

“An army private kissed every girl he could find. Including me. Streams of tears ran down the cheeks of an elderly woman as she watched the words circling the tower.”

Worst line: Hart’s enthusiasm for New York sometimes leads to lines like, “We had to be the luckiest girls in town to be part of the Tiffany family and watch the curtain open to the toniest display of jewelry in the world.” These may be too sugary for some tastes but are believable in context and, given the cynicism of so many recent memoirs, even refreshing.

Recommendation? A good choice for reading groups looking for light reading that’s more intelligent than all the bad novels that publishers hurl at us at in the summer. At $14.95, the hardcover edition costs less than many paperbacks. Summer at Tiffany could also be an excellent gift for someone who remembers World War II, possibly in its large-print edition (HarperLuxe, $14.95, paperback).

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Summer at Tifanny appeared in the post directly before this one on July 2, 2007.

Caveat lector: Hart creates some composite characters and compresses some timelines. Partly because she acknowledges these up front and much more directly than many authors do, these devices don’t undermine her overall credibility, though you can sometimes see the seams of stitched-together events.

Editor: Jennifer Pooley

Published: April 2007

Furthermore: Hart, now in her 80s, is a professional cellist and former chair of the Fine Arts Department at the University of San Diego. She belongs to Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, which figures in this book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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