July 27th, 2011
When I alphabetized by bookshelves to gain some order over the suburban sprawl of my TBR piles (read: four book shelves), I neglected to include any nonfiction in my overall reading strategy. I see now this was a mistake because I really love narrative nonfiction, especially when it’s well-written and about New York City. The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell, while, yes, might be a bit repetitive and contain perhaps one too many historical recipes that feel like filler, fits the bill. I have never read anything else by Mark Kurlansky but I am ever-curious to read more of his nonfiction after finishing this book.
From the early Dutch settlers to the heyday of the Golden Age, New Yorkers have always consumed copious amounts of oysters. The social-anthropological thesis behind Kurlansky’s narrative fascinated me: human beings, in any situation, will simply ruin a natural, wonderful thing (oysters in the NY and surrounding harbours) by industry, profit and greed. And what’s worse, while the environmental message rings clear in this book, it’s amazing to me that even if they did bring the oysters back, the water at the bottom is so dead (no oxygen) that they wouldn’t survive. Ironically, as many activists point out, oysters are like vacuums cleaning up the waters for us. Annnywaay, that’s my rant about the ruination of our earth.
Back to the more fun things. It’s fascinating to examine the growth of a city through food — how it evolved, how it became an industry, and how said industry changed once the product disappeared for good. I loved how everyone in NYC: rich, poor, tourist, eats oysters — heck, my RRHB and I even took his parents to the beautiful oyster bar in Grand Central Station for dinner — all throughout history. Starting with the native peoples who first traded with the Dutch, through the English colonization and then downfall of their rule, and into the Golden Age, one thing remains constant: an unwaivering appetite for oysters among the inhabitants of one of the world’s greatest cities. (more…)
December 27th, 2007
Even without noticing it acutely, I’m probably reading a book a day, well at least over the last two anyway. This trend might need to continue as my body forces me to rest, having now come down with a rotten cold not even ten days after the plague, and not even a day after my RRHB himself survived the awful GI sickness. Isn’t that what holidays are for?
Annnywaaay. Today it’s Katharine Weber’s excellent Triangle: A Novel. Started last night after we watched Eastern Promises (well, the RRHB watched the film; I half puttered about because I’d already seen the film), I just finished it moments ago, cuddled up with a cup of cold tea on the chair with Walter at my feet.
It’s an interesting novel, both in the way Weber chooses to tell the story, swinging back and forth over Esther Gottesfeld’s tale of the day in which she survived the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, and the modern day lives of Esther, her granddaughter Rebecca and her composer lover George. On the edge of death from the ripe old age of 106, Esther has kept a number of secrets about the fire for 90 years, details that an historian named Ruth Zion is desperate to pry out of her cold, dead hands. They are all fascinating characters all, but its truly Rebecca and George, whose final composition in the book finds its inspiration from those tragic events, who find their lives inexorably changed when Esther finally dies.
Told in various formats (court transcripts, newspaper articles, phone conversations), and commenting mercilessly on the nature of storytelling itself, the novel is rich in fascinating details, not only about the music George composes and its compellingly scientific beginnings, but also in the nature of Rebecca’s work as a geneticist, and how both of these things tie the couple together in ways that are not necessarily traditional, but certainly work to keep the two of them happy. It’s a beautiful book about the nature of family, the threads of tradition, and a tragedy that defined the history of New York at that particular time and place.
Inspiring, addictive, ridiculously smart and completely effective, Triangle: A Novel might just be the perfect book for a partially snowy grey day in Toronto; miles and years away from 1911 New York, and worlds away from composers, geneticists, and all kinds of other things I would have never known about had I not finished Weber’s work.
PHOTO IN CONTEXT: I love the detail on the cover where the word “Triangle” is stitched onto a shirt (maybe a shirtwaist?), and wanted to highlight it with my photograph of the book sitting on my desk surrounded by used Kleenex (gross), pens, a notepad, with Helen Humphrey’s The Frozen Thames underneath.