Posts Tagged ‘new york


Book Review: Nevada by Imogen Binnie

NevadaNevada by Imogen Binnie

Oh wow, this one knocked me for a loop. A searing, memorable trip through New York, the Nevada desert and more, Imogen Binnie’s Nevada is great, a fantastic debut novel. It’s real good.

It follows Maria Griffiths, a young trans woman living in New York. She has a crappy job at a bookstore, rides her bike everywhere and lives by a punker ethos; it’s no shocker she sings along to her Fugazi CDs. She’s carefully crafted a life for herself she thinks works, but finds herself almost going through the motions, like she’s playing a role. When she gets dumped and loses her job in quick succession, she goes on a journey across the US to try and figure shit out.

It sounds like every road novel before it, but I think Nevada is smarter than the norm and certainly comes at it from a different angle. Binnie writes from the third-person and adeptly cuts between characters to show just how everyone is really acting: Maria is kind of selfish, troubled and emotionally stunted, for example. But Maria’s also compelling, funny and whip-smart.

The most striking feature of the novel is its cutting, smartass sense of humour. I think my favourite scene comes when Maria is writing, but can’t think of anything to say, so she writes a devastatingly funny little piece of Hemingway-ese:

“I am a soldier in the first world war. I don’t have very many feelings. I drink a lot and girls like me. We had a long conversation about whither she should have an abortion, but we didn’t use the word abortion. The whole thing was a dream and I am dead.” (pg 95)

In the book’s second half, Maria comes across a young stoner named James, who she sees a lot of herself in; James is alternately confused, annoyed and compelled by the bright-haired women who’s drifted into his life and wants to re-arrange things. Together they drive through Nevada, giving Maria lots of time to lay out her own theories.

It’s a funny novel, sure, but it’s also one with a sadness, too. Little lines here and there show the darkness lurking just behind Maria’s punker façade: parents who never want to see her again, a litany of messed up relationships, a miserable childhood and heavy substance abuse (try and keep up with her alcohol intake, for example!).

But the thing about it is they’re only hinted at: I think a lesser writer would’ve included those scenes in an attempt to show pathos. Binnie doesn’t, which makes her book feel a lot more honest and certainly less manipulative. Compared to books like Middlesex or Annabel, this book is refreshingly honest and direct, a clear voice cutting through a busy street corner.

The book also functions as a manifesto on gender theory and even as a how-to guide (shave with boiling water, use a decent foundation and put on lots of eye makeup; sparkles are an optional touch). Through Maria, Binnie cuts into conventional psychiatric theories like a hot knife through butter, absolutely ripping thinkers like J. Michael Bailey or Ken Zucker to shreds. In these sections, it reads more as manifesto than novel, which might grate on some readers, but is actually some of my favourite writing here. It builds on earlier authors, but speaks with a loud, distinct voice.

For what it’s worth, many of those authors Maria casually namedrops are worth reading: Kate Bornstein, Julia Serano, Michelle Tea. At times, it’s a stretch believing the characters are so literate in this specific area, but then again I’ve read those books, too. (I’ll get around to posting my Gender Outlaw essay someday, I swear).

Rating: 9/10. This one absolutely seared itself into my mind – literally one I found myself thinking about when I was doing other stuff – and over two or three days, I barely put it down. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, too. In sum: Nevada is one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a while and it’s absolutely recommended, 100 per cent.


Plunkitt of Tammany Hall – George Washington Plunkitt

Plunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical PoliticsPlunkitt of Tammany Hall: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics by George Washington Plunkitt

The name Tammany Hall doesn’t really mean anything anymore and most people recognize it as a relic of the distant past. But about a century ago, it was the biggest political machine in New York and arguably the United States.

There are plenty of books about Tammany, but there are remarkably few primary sources out there about it. It’s mostly court transcripts, newspaper columns, that sort of thing. There are few political memoirs by Tammany’s movers and shakers, which seems almost impossible in an age where every would-be political leader seems to publish a memoir during their candidacy.

But maybe this is less unexpected than you’d think: as this book shows, not only was Tammany wildly corrupt, they had a very loose sense of ethics. And just about reveled in it.

George Washington Plunkitt was born in New York in 1842 and died there 82 years later. He served in both the State Assembly and the State Senate and for years was part of the Tammany machine. And unlike just about everyone else there, he left a record of his time. Sort of.

Plunkitt is less of a memoir than a series of off-the-cuff lectures, delivered at a shoeshine stand outside a courthouse and recorded by a reporter. I’m a little confused if these were delivered to a crowd or just to Riodon, but they all have the air of an informal talk. In these, Plunkitt lays down his theories and thoughts on how to govern, how to run for office and what to do once you’re there.

These talks are an interesting mix of corruption and canny insight. Plunkitt wasn’t really an educated guy – at times, he rails against getting a university education and at “bookworms” who try to run for office – but he was a clever one. As he puts it himself, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

For example, there’s Plunkitt’s take on graft: it can be either honest or dishonest. The difference? I’ll let him explain:

“… supposin’ it’s a new bridge they’re goin’ to build. I get tipped off and I buy as much property as I can that has to be taken for approaches. I sell at my own price later on and drop some more money in the bank… It’s honest graft and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year.” (pg 4)

It might come as no surprise that Plunkitt once drew four different public salaries in a calendar year, three of them at the same time, and saw no problem with it. He even brags about it!

His other thoughts and observations on government run along similar lines: the civil service is ruining the country; the Irish are genetically inclined to run governments, etc. What’s most illuminating are his origins in politics: he got some friends together and got them to say they’d vote the way he wanted them to, then sold his services to Tammany Hall.

Indeed, vote getting is a common thread here, in ways both legitimate and illegitimate. One way involves chasing ambulances and finding people suffering personal ruin. Then you can conspicuously help them, both ensuring their vote and that of people sufficiently impressed by your generosity. Conversely, you can support people going through personal highs; Plunkitt relates having a man stationed at the courthouse to report on who’s getting married; he then vies to be first to send them a gift.

Every once in a while, he touches on dirty tricks: hiring people to sway voters one way or the other by money or force; having people go around and impersonate voters and vote in as many districts as possible.

There are a few places where his views haven’t just dated, but veer into the repugnant; he’s a through racist and drops more than a few nasty epithets, particularly against Asians. While I suppose his views aren’t uncommon for people of his social class and time, they’re still really, really ugly.

Taken as a whole, the book comes across as boasting and a series of talks. There aren’t really any lessons on how to acquire or use political power, unless you want to make a quick buck. In my mind, I expected something along the lines of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, Machiavelli or even Frank Underwood. Instead, I got a series of lectures on the uselessness of bookworms and the civil service.

And while they’re interesting, and there are a few interesting examples how Tammany worked, largely the book’s introduction provided more history and insight into this era of politics. It’s a short, quick read and ultimately, I didn’t think it really offered much more than brief glimpse into this world.

Rating: 4/10. It’s an interesting companion to books like Gangs of New York, but I think most people would be better served by a larger history of these times, not by these talks.


Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary UnderbellyKitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

I worked in a kitchen once. It was my first job, washing dishes at a restaurant downtown. Not an overly fancy place, but a respectable joint: fresh produce and meat delivered every few days, a group of line chefs in the kitchen and me, off in the corner, handling the dish pit.
The work sucked, but I wanted to be a chef, so I stuck it out for a year: washing dishes, working late, coming home at three in the morning. When my checks stopped matching the hours I put in and the place started closing early, I left without giving notice. It closed a few months later.

When Anthony Bourdain writes about busy kitchens, the teamwork and chaos, I sort of know where he’s coming from. I knew people who were sorta like the cast in this book: gruff, jerky line cooks. God help me, I even remember hoarding those little towels every so often: those pans were hot as hell.

Still, I wanted to like Kitchen Confidential a lot more than I did.

Throughout the book, Bourdain paints himself as a full-of-himself asshole, a jerk who loves to swear and scream at people. He knows a lot about cooking and a lot about people. And he probably knows how much of a jerk he comes off as. Forget liking the guy, it was hard for me to even stand him sometimes: a loud, mouthy guy prone to hyperbole and screaming.

This isn’t to say it’s a bad read. Part memoir, part how-to, part creative nonfiction, Kitchen Nightmares is stuffed with fun stories, useful advice and fascinating personalities. In 27 essays, he takes readers into the hectic Rainbow Room kitchen, subterranean Tokyo dives and mobbed-up restaurants. He explains what knives he uses, how to make your food taste like restaurant food (shallots!) and when to avoid eating fish. He goes from cooking school grad to a coked-out maniac to seasoned vet of the competitive cooking world.

There’s a lot of stuff here for even casual foodies. I know I’ve certainly taken a new interest in cooking with truffle oil, for example. And although it sometimes gets overwhelming with all the inside baseball terms – I’m still looking up the English names for some of the dishes Bourdain casually tosses around – it’s nowhere near as overwhelming as the kitchen scenes.

And I thought I knew a busy kitchen! When Bourdain starts going through a day in his life, the staggering amount of work him and his kitchen go through on a regular basis, it’s hard to keep up. Partly by design, I imagine, since things get a little crazy in his kitchens; by contrast, the pace he describes at his friend Scott Bryan’s place seems cozy, even though it’s a busy place, too.

But Bourdain admits, he thrives on chaos. This is a guy who pumps a soundtrack of late-70s punk into his kitchen, the frantic tempo driving his line. And if he likes it when things get disordered, maybe it’s because he has this air of disorder himself: when he tells about his early years, it’s of days and nights high out of his mind, working massive shifts and inhaling huge rails of coke.

I don’t think he was trying to glamourize these years – he later mentions how he lost more than few friends to drugs – but it’s hard not to think he’s romanticizing a little, too. He spends so much time emphasizing the highs it’s easy to miss the passing references to the lows: the trips to rehab, the old friends who won’t return his calls, the few nights a year he gets to spend alone with his wife. Cooking’s a lot of fun, but it’s a hard gig, too.

Rating: 5/10. Enjoyable in spurts, but overwhelming when read in chunks, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is an interesting book and the man’s sheer love for food, no matter it’s style, presentation or origin, shines through in every essay of his. Unfortunately, so does his overbearing, caustic attitude. I enjoyed reading it, but I’m also glad I don’t work in his kitchen for a living, too.


Baseball, Ballrooms and Bedlam: The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mahler

The Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a CityThe Bronx is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler

Back in 1977, New York was a joke. A cruel one maybe, but to most of America it was a joke: the biggest city in America was on the verge of bankruptcy and crime was going out of control. It’s a gritty, tense world Jonathan Mahler evokes in The Bronx is Burning, his look at that memorable New York summer, both in the street and on the field at Yankee Stadium.

In many ways, the Yankees and the city reflected each other. Both had long legacies of greatness but had largely fallen apart in recent years. The Yankees had just returned to the postseason, but were quickly swept by the Cincinnati Reds; New York had just hosted the Democratic National Convention, but was largely ignored by President Jimmy Carter.

But the Yankees had something new to count on: slugger Reggie Jackson, who had just been signed with them in the offseason. He brought a lot of power to the lineup, but he brought a lot of drama, too. A strange mix of braggadocio and insecurity, in his late-70s prime, Jackson was as likely to destroy a pitch as he was throw his teammates or manager under the bus. Just a few weeks into the season, he gave an infamous interview with a reporter from Sport Magazine, claiming he was the straw that stirs the drink and team captain Thurman Munson could only stir it bad.

At the same time, the city was in disarray. Faced with bankruptcy, Mayor Abe Beame laid off hundreds of public workers. Police officers responded with protests and flyers trying to scare off tourists (“Welcome to fear city,” read one). There were tensions between the working class as lower rungs of society; urban renewal had led to white flight and abandoned businesses. Soon everything would explode.

Mahler’s book captures this divisive moment in the city’s history in vivid detail. He weaves back and forth between the rise of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, a heated mayoral election, civil unrest and baseball effortlessly, often finding connections between them. The world of Studio 54 wasn’t an alien one to Reggie Jackson, but neither were impoverished areas like Bushwick or the South Bronx.

Indeed, Jackson and his furious relationship with Billy Martin largely drives the action in The Bronx… with their fights and backstabbing quickly becoming baseball lore. Mahler recounts slight after slight, quote after quote, the tension rising to a boiling point one afternoon in Boston when they came to blows in the dugout in front a national TV audience.

Soon, Mahler recounts the city’s boiling point: the blackout of 1977. He devotes one section of the book to this event, some 25 hours that changed the city’s direction. After it, the mayoral campaign took a nasty turn and soon devolved into Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch sniping at each other. After it, it was impossible to ignore the social trends that caused widespread looting and the deteriorating inner city. And after it, the Yankees slowly started turning their season around.

Although this book’s often held up as one the big sports books of the past decade – Grantland mentioned it by name in a story about baseball books a few weeks back – some parts haven’t aged well. For example: Mahler makes a good case for Jackson’s success at the plate, but his heavy reliance on statistics like batting average and RBI reflect a past era of sports writing.

His cultural picture of New York is a little shallow, too. He touches on punk rock only a bit and devotes a few pages to the burgeoning art scene. But seminal artists like Patti Smith and Jean-Michel Basquiat never show up and Mahler genrally seems more interested in describing details of the gay scene (a club with an 18-wheeler set up in it!) than in giving it a wider social context like he does with disco.

But the political sections of his book have aged better: the Post’s heavy focus on Son of Sam prefigures the post 9/11 jingoism of Murdoch’s Fox News by decades and his account of the changing campaigns of Koch and Cuomo is fascinating, if a little short.

I would’ve liked more on how each (not to mention fellow candidate Bella Abzug) saw how the election changed their careers or how the Post kept growing in the years after, but I’m generally satisfied by what’s here.

Rating: 7/10. An enjoyable read, I breezed through this one in a few days. While it’s picture of the city is relatively small, it has a huge scope and attempts to show America’s largest city in a state of flux. As a baseball history, it’s no Summer of 49, but it’ll more than fit the bill for a fun summer read.


Best New Albums 2013 – #16: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

Running through the end of the month (with a short Christmas break), I’ll be running a post each weekday taking a look at one of my top 20 albums of the year, slowly working my way down to number one. Some I’ve reviewed previously for Bearded Gentlemen Music – I’ll provide links where necessary – and the entire list will eventually end up there, too. But for most of these records, this is the first time I’m writing about them at length, making this a chance to explain my choices in a little greater detail. Last year’s list is no longer online, but for 2011’s Best Canadian Music click here and for 2010’s list, click here.

#16: Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City

In the few years since they released Contra, I started to wonder if Vampire Weekend would ever outlive the waves from their first album. Contra certainly sounded like Vampire Weekend Part Two to me, which was sometimes a good thing: they knew where their strengths lied and even if it wasn’t especially ambitious, they cranked out poppish, vaguely Graceland-ish and very verbose pop.  How would Modern Vampires of the City compare?

Sometimes, it sounds a lot like their first album. There’s bouncy rhythms, Ezra Koenig cramming as many words as he can between guitar riffs and even a harpsichord or two.

Sometimes it doesn’t: Diane Young rocks as hard as anything of theirs I can remember and explodes into bursts of distorted guitar and keyboards; Finger Back is frantic, with a raging energy that hasn’t been there before. Even Koenig’s singing sounds like he’s trying to get it all out as fast as he can. And on Hudson, he sounds downright depressed, singing at a lower register over what sounds like funeral organs, lush strings and a line of snare drums.

It’s an interesting change of pace for the band. It’s a darker album, the sound of a band who aren’t having so much fun anymore. Where they once sang about campus life or hanging on the beach with a drink, now Koenig wonders about God: “Through the fire and through the flames,” he sings on Ya Hey, “You won’t even say your name.”

It’s a welcome change. I’m glad to hear they’re growing up.