The Dakota Winters

One generation measures time from the day John F. Kennedy was shot; yet another from the day John Lennon was shot in front of the Upper West Side Dakota apartment building.  If you are familiar with New York City and a fan of the late nineteen seventies, Tom Barbash offers a familiar ride through time and place. Despite the slow moving plot and the expected finale of Lennon’s death, the references to history are entertaining and nostalgic.

Having barely survived his Peace Corps experience in Africa, twenty-three year old Anton Winter returns to New York City to recover from malaria and reincarnate his famous father’s talk show career.  Buddy Winter may be based on a number of famous late night hosts, but Jack Parr seems to be the closest in temperament and panache, and Barbash makes the connection in Buddy Winter’s Phil Donahue interview, referring to Parr’s famous  walk off on the Tonight Show in the nineteen sixties in the middle of a show stating, “There must be a better way of making a living than this.” The fictitious Buddy walks off the set after a nervous breakdown.

John Lennon is a neighbor of the Winters at the Dakota, and Barbash portrays him as a regular guy with Yoko as the entitled and precocious wife who defined the Millennial attitude long before any of them were born. With its famous Gothic facade and its water-powered elevators, the building itself is a main character, having housed many famous people, including Leonard Bernstein, Lauren Bacall, and Boris Karloff, a previous occupant of the Winters’ apartment.

John and Anton bond over a sailing trip to Bermuda, where a triangle storm almost capsizes their boat.  They all survive with John released from his writer’s block and composing again.  The narrative alternates between conversations revealing the real John Lennon through his friendship with Anton, and Anton’s struggle to create his own life free of his father’s dependence on him.  The imagined conversations are easy to believe, as the plot gallops to the inevitable ending.

Barbash imagines a Beatles reunion on Buddy Winter’s new show in January, but John Lennon is shot outside the Dakota in December.  Lennon was only 40 years old when he died but Barbash brought him back to life in The Dakota Winters. 

An Added Note:

48461452-Cover-Dakota-NYC-Most-Exclusive-Building-CNBC.600x400Although the Dakota on 72nd and Central Park West is home today to Yoko Ono and Connie Chung, among others, the co-op remains one of the hardest to get into in Manhattan. Cher, Madonna, Billy Joel, Carly Simon, and even Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas have all been rejected by the building’s selective board.

 

Tempting Fare for Book Clubs – Quindlen’s Alternate Side

9780812996067   Love New York City?  Want to improve your vocabulary? Your neighbors driving you crazy? What do you think about the homeless?  Do you have parking?  Anna Quindlen’s story about lives intersecting in Alternate Side has so much to talk about.

It’s hard to appreciate the value of a parking space unless you do not have one.  In Calvin Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t going Out, the main character jockeys moving his car to alternate sides of the street to accommodate New York City’s idiosyncratic parking rules.  Parking space is sacred, maybe more important than the car.  I could relate – I’ve been there.  In Quindlen’s story, Charlie and Nora have finally scored a parking spot in the private empty lot at the end of their dead end street in New York City.  At first, the description of the cul-de-sac occupants seems innocuous – just another neighborhood – until one of the residents whacks the indispensable handyman with a golf club for blocking his car.

Suddenly, the atmosphere shifts to the underlying currents plaguing this quiet area – not only the mysterious bags of dog poop on Nora’s front stoop or the rats running out from under the cars but also Charlie’s unsuccessful quest for recognition in his career and Nora’s dissatisfaction with her marriage.  With her usual flair for relatable characters, Quindlen reviews the parallel tracks of the haves and the have-nots, comparing lives :  a group of homeowners with rising equity in old Victorian homes to the Jamaican nannies/housekeepers and handymen from the Dominican Republic who serve them; the superficial wealthy founder of a jewelry museum to the fake homeless guy outside the building; Nora’s private yearning for the lost love of her gay college boyfriend to the husband she settled for.  Quindlen uses a phrase to mock them all – “First world problems” – how is it they want something else, when what they have seems so much more.

Quindlen’s stories are quiet yet forceful, and she is on my list of favorite writers; she can’t write fast enough for me.  One of my favorites – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – her “roadmap for growing older while still enjoying life” has one of her relatable lines I still live through.  In Alternate Side, she offers an opportunity to examine what is important in life, and how long it takes sometimes to realize it – if ever.  Or – an alternate view might be, she offers a tale of a middle-aged couple in New York City who finally got a parking space.

An Added Note:    My best friend and I were reading this book simultaneously, her on the East Coast, me in the middle of the ocean, and we both loved the words – our favorite is “bespoke,”  but a few others crept in too – eschew, ersatz – you might find more.  And I had to highlight some favorite phrases:

“If all the women who fantasized about their husbands’ passings made them happen, there would be no men in the world.”

“There remained the hand-tinted wedding portrait hanging at the end of the upstairs hall, in which both of their parents looked stiff, a little uncomfortable, almost as though they had not yet been introduced.”

“…since she was eleven, the beginning of a time when, Nora knew now from experience, girls are mean as sleet and should be cryogenically frozen and reconstituted later…”

Related:  Miller’s Valley

 

Starting the New Year Going Into Town with Roz Chast

After Roz Chast entertained me with her clever graphic novel about her aging parents in “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant,” I couldn’t wait for her next installment of graphic humor, but her Going Into Town, a Love Letter to New York had me thinking I should carry the book with me the next time I visit the city. Not only are the illustrations and text hilarious, the chapter on how to use the subway could be very useful for my directionally clueless nature.

With her signature New Yorker comic strip art and her East Coast conversational style, Chast takes the reader from a basic layout of Manhattan, through “stuff to do…food…apartments” and all the practical basics for living, surviving, accessing Manhattan.  As promised, this is not a guide for tourists (although some might find it helpful) but an insider’s manual – “some maps, some tips…Nothing too overwhelming” created for her daughter, a freshman in college in Manhattan.  

Lately, I’ve been reading historic tomes full of man’s inhumanity to man, and it’s lovely to start the new year with a funny and optimistic view of one of my favorite cities. Might be a good new year’s resolution to read more like this.

Careers for Women

51Zl+TlJY2L._AC_US218_  Any story culminating in the fate of the World Trade Center in New York City already carries a pall of anxiety, but Joanna Scott focuses on the stories of women only peripherally connected yet forever affected by those towers.  The story bounces across decades, from the inception of the architecture to it final demise, with a stream of consciousness narrative that can be hard to follow.

Back in the nineteen fifties, women executives were rare and Lee, know as Mrs. J to her staff, is a formidable force in public relations for the Port Authority, selling the idea and managing the opposition of small businesses who will be displaced by the new two towers World Trade Center.  Other women include Maggie, an ambitious young assistant on Mrs. J’s staff and the story’s narrator; Pauline, whose perils never seem to end; and Kay, the erstwhile wife of the philandering manager of the aluminum plant supplying the materials for the project.  Their lives interconnect as they struggle to survive both professionally and personally.

Several story lines bind the streaming structure – a corpse appears in the woods, the aluminum plant poisons the adjacent farmland and water table, and the plant mysteriously explodes.  And, despite the intricate architecture of the narrative, following the lives of the women is satisfying.  Although their lives slowly build over the years, none are in the Trade Center on that fateful day.

Maggie’s voice sometimes sounds like a documentary, with a news broadcaster’s cold observations.  At times, Scott purposely drops in cryptic images that pop up again later in the book; more than once, I thought I should reread a section with the reference – if only I could find it.  At one point in the novel, Scott has one of her characters state: ” {she} compared the experience to rereading the kind of book in which the end invites you to go back to the beginning and read again, with new attention…” and I imagined she was reassuring me, the reader, when I found myself unbalanced and confused in the miasma of the images floating back and forth from decade to decade.

Reading Careers for Women is a complicated venture, but worthwhile.

Related Review: Joanna Scott’s DePotter’s Grand Tour

 

 

My Notorious Life

Unknown-1In contrast to the saving graces of the characters in Call the Midwife, the BBC Masterpiece series based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her experiences in postwar London, Kate Manning’s heroine in My Notorious Life earns a fortune by helping women give birth and sometimes helping them stop it.  Manning’s midwife is based on the real life of Ann Trow Lohman, known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a “female physician” in New York City in the late eighteen hundreds.

Like Restell, Axie had no medical training and had little formal education.  Manning weaves a story around her poor background and her longing to reunite with her brother and sister after their mother’s death forces them on the orphan train.  Axie eventually lands in the home of an older midwife who teaches her the trade.  Eventually, she marries Charlie, another orphan train victim, and they start a business peddling powders and concoctions to cure women’s ailments.  Soon the business expands to midwifery and abortion.

Although the fictionalized life of the real woman is embellished with romance, adventure, and a great deal of angst, the story stays true to the misery of Victorian times.  When I found the Smithsonian article on Madame Restell, I was amazed at how close Manning came to appropriating her life in fiction.  Manning offers a different ending for her character, and you should read the Smithsonian article after you read the book – no spoiler here, for Restell’s real life was just as compelling as the fictionalized one created for her by Manning.

In an interview, Manning noted her purpose for writing was to produce

“a rip-roaring tale from the 19th century. I wanted to write a good old-fashioned story with plot and character and depth, and I don’t want it to get hijacked by a current political debate that really doesn’t seem to go anywhere, you know.”

She succeeded in 434 pages of vivid Dickensian characters with a commentary on America’s never-ending battle over women’s rights.  If you missed it when it first was published in 2013, you might consider reading it now.