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A Tour of Literary New York

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Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail was curious to know about New York City literary life. They were kind enough to ask me a few questions about bookstores, bars, and readings. You can read the feature in their travel section. Here are my answers in full.

What are your three favourite bookstores in NYC – please give a brief reason for each.

McNally JacksonThe best part about being a bookworm and living in New York City, and the surrounding area, is that there are so many independent bookstores, each with their own personality. Since I have so many favorites, depending on my mood–or current location–I’ll say that when visiting New York one should make sure to check out the iconic stores: McNally Jackson in SoHo, Strand near Union Square, and St. Marks Bookshop in the East Village.

One of the first things you’ll notice about McNally Jackson is that their fiction titles are shelved by region based on the nationality of the author. It makes for interesting perusing since you might not always know where a certain writer was born. The store also has a cafe where you can sit and read the books you’ve purchased or have brought with you. As one of the largest independents in the city, they host excellent events almost every night in the downstairs space. One of the liveliest stores in New York, it’s a great place to visit day or night.

If you’re looking to get lost in stacks of books, The Strand is the place for you. Started in 1927, Strand has 18 miles of new, used, and rare books. They also host many interesting events in their rare book room. Admission is the cost of the book or a $10 gift card. Definitely worth it.

St. Mark’s Bookshop, not actually on St. Mark’s Place but very close to it, opened in 1977. They’re known for a great collection of political and cultural studies books that are hard to find elsewhere. They also have a wide selection of poetry, literary journals, and zines.

Where are the best places for author readings, poetry slams or other similar literary events/performances (and what’s the best online resource where people can check for listings?)

WordNow you’ve tapped into one of the hardest parts about being a bookworm in New York City. As the evening approaches one is faced with a nearly unsolvable dilemma: which reading should I go to?

For this one, we’ll branch out to Brooklyn, which is a quick subway ride from Manhattan. WORD in Greenpoint devotes their entire basement to events; powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for hosting parties, not just readings; Housing Works is doing some creative programming and the crowd is usually packed with people in literary industry, whether it’s publishing or criticism; the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights is a monthly series that hosts a lineup of local and visiting authors; Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene not only brings in top authors but the storefront is a big glass window, which makes it an excellent place for those who like open spaces; Bluestockings on the Lower East Side is known for it’s LGBT events; and Community Bookstore has really ramped up their readings over the past few months since bringing the tireless Michele Filgate on board.

Two other places of note are the Bowery Poetry Club where you can find poetry slams and KGB Bar on West 4th where you can see rising literary talent, established local authors, and magazine launches.

Community Bookstore

As for finding out about events, my friend David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy and I started an online calendar, Book Boroughing, a little over a year ago. While it’s far from exhaustive we do include the major indie bookstore readings and some of the larger series around town. Before starting the calendar, I relied heavily on Slice Magazine’s (and still do). Time Out New York is also a great place to check for local happenings and can be found on newsstands.

Are there a couple of bars/coffeeshops where you’re likely to run into writers and other literary types  please give a brief description of each.

That’s a tough one. I think the nice part about the New York literary scene is that many local authors come out to events, so you can often run into them there. However, if you’re looking for some iconic bars, there’s the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel, the White Horse Tavern and the Kettle of Fish in the West Village, and The Half King in Chelsea, which is owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson.

Any other tips for bookish visitors to NYC  festivals, events, tours etc.  anything you can think of really that a travelling bookworm might enjoy.

Library HotelMy first piece of advice is to explore Brooklyn. It really is very close and the literary scene there is thriving. Nothing makes that more apparent than the growing success of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival that takes place at the end of September. Although the festival itself is on a Sunday, the events leading up to the day are staggering. There are a ton of readings and parties that take place all around the borough.

There are two annual Lit Crawls, one for New York City and one for Brooklyn. During the one-day event multiple readings, panels, and literary games take place around a designated area. Authors, publishers, and literary magazines all participate.

Book Expo America is a large publishing industry convention that takes place at the Jacob Javits Center. They’ve just opened it up to the public but, in true New York fashion, there are tons of parties and readings that take place after convention hours. During that week, while all sorts of literary and publishing types are in town, bookstores, publishers, and various publications use the opportunity to mingle with those they don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face during the rest of the year. Many of the parties are open to all.

While I’ve never been on a literary tour of Manhattan, I did come across one for Greenwich Village on the Fodors blog that is worth saving for your visit.

And finally, traveling bookworms might want to stay at the Library Hotel. It’s within walking distance of the New York Public Library, which is also a bookish place one should be sure to visit.

Written by Gabrielle

April 30, 2013 at 6:47 am

Literary Voyeurism: From Russia with …

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Whenever anyone asks me where I plan to travel next, without skipping a beat I say Russia. I’ve long been fascinated by the country: its ruthless winters, its self-serious cultural history, and its tortured political past. I know my view of Russia is anachronistic, as if there were a switch that flips it from 1880 to 1980 and back again with very little in between or after. I often imagine stepping off the plane and sinking knee-deep into the quicksand of days gone by.

I know the country is no longer the land of revolutionaries conspiring to overthrow the czar and that the fields are no longer littered with peasants, stooped and head-covered, hacking away at wheat with their scythes; I know the political and economic landscape has changed and with it the arts as well.

It’s actually the Russia of today that keeps me from reserving a hotel room and booking a flight. Thoughts of Moscow fill my mind with visions of great wealth discrepancy—nouveau riche on the streets of Moscow, women draped in furs with diamonds hanging off their fingers, and men in Armani suits opening the doors of shiny, black Mercedes for them. Meanwhile, in the parks I can see bums sleeping on benches, surrounded by empty bottles. At least this is the reason I tell myself why I haven’t visited yet but my noble stance falls apart when you consider my daily walk to the subway includes passing numerous homeless people either passed out or crouching in doorways while me and my peers head off to office jobs or the local coffee shop for a day of freelancing. In the end, it’s laziness more than a sensitivity to human suffering that keeps me from leaving the country.

So, how does a lazy, wannabe traveler experience Russia’s present day culture without an airline ticket? Well, if you’re like me, you head to the nearest bookstore and look for a good novel. While it’s hard to argue that reading a book and visiting a country are on equal footing, one can surely soak up a sense of a culture through literary voyeurism.

When many of us think of Russian writers it’s Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov that come to mind; and if we’ve read anything at all it’s Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and for those who scratch surfaces, possibly The Master and the Margarita by Bulgakov. These selections are only encouraged when perusing the literature section of many bookshops but if you’re someone who has read all the classics they wish to encounter, or if you would rather read contemporary fiction, finding new voices can be frustrating.

Even at the best bookstore, the Russian titles range from those published in the 1800s to those from the Soviet-era. While byzantine governments often make for interesting tales, the USSR dissolved in 1991 and it’s time for our shelves to reflect the change. Much of the absence of modern day Russian writing is in large part due to lack of translations. Modern day works in English are hard to come by simply because they don’t exist.

Lucky for those interested, just this past June, New York-based publishing house Overlook Press announced it was partnering with the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication (also known as Rospechat). Together, they will publish at least 125 classic and contemporary titles in English over the next 10 years, beginning in 2013.

The goal of the project, which will include fiction, drama, and poetry, says Overlook publisher, Peter Mayer, “is to transcend the well-respected classics and broaden the awareness of Russian culture by making available for the first time in uniform editions these important works of literature, so many barely known outside Russia.” Which contemporary authors and titles they will publish is yet to be announced.

For those who want to start now, Akashic Books has two collections of contemporary Russian crime writers in their excellent noir series. In 2010 they released Moscow Noir, edited by Petersburg-based literary agents Natalia Smirnova and Julia Goumen. This month, the same editors return with St. Petersburg Noir, featuring a new crop of writers to discover.

However manufactured for literary effect the stories may be, both books offer a strong sense of place. Just one example is “Europe After the Rain” by Alexei Evdokimov (Moscow Noir):

Here, the river and the open space in front of Kiev station leave a large expanse open to view. Here, you can really see the sky, which is rare in this capital city that squeezes you between enormous stone slabs. The view that spreads out before you here—the Gothic silhouette of the university on a distant bluff to the left, the palisade of mighty pipes on top of the Radisson, the spire of the Hotel Ukraine perpendicular to layers of lilac clouds—is one of those typical and utterly urban landscapes that create the face of a city, which Moscow, monstrous and vague with its eroded individuality, so lacks.

While these two collections are not the strongest in the series, a difficult task if there ever was one, they succeed in bringing much-needed attention to genre writing happening in Russia today.

In their introduction to the Moscow collection, Smirnova and Goumen explain the state of crime fiction in their country: “A noir literary tradition does not yet really exist in Russia in general or Moscow in particular. Why? Possibly due to the censorship of czarist Russia, to say nothing of the Soviet era.”

However, for their St. Petersburg introduction they claim a different legacy:

Petersburg somehow nurtures ironic, satirical, and darkly humorous interpretations of reality. The darker and harsher life gets, the more humorous its interpretations tend to be. Indeed, only at a Petersburg house party could writers argue enthusiastically over the most efficient way to get rid of a corpse … The origins of this rich noir tradition come from the city’s history, its urban landscape, and even the weather, as Petersburg’s climate undoubtedly affects local character. What morbid thoughts can freezing winds from the Baltics bring along? Which emotions swirl inside a person struggling through snowdrifts in the streets? How can one remain positive when the long-awaited northern “summer” offers less than a dozen sunny days?

An annotated travel guide of sorts, these two collections—so obviously tailored to the psyche of their respective city—offer a look into the individualism that exists in this vast country today; and as I had craved, many of the stories struggle with post-Soviet Russia, its identity and inner workings, and the residue left from the previous decades. Regardless of what impact Russian masters might have had on the literary landscape, the country’s noir—and more broadly, the writing coming from this new generation—has a fresh feel, one of promise and commitment to the days ahead.

Anyone interested in bringing contemporary Russian writers to an American audience should support these new and forthcoming publications. If there’s a show of interest from the reading public, there’s a chance we’ll see more from these new voices.

Find Moscow Noir at your local indie
Find St. Petersburg Noir at your local indie
Learn more about Read Russia
Read a review of Moscow Noir at Bookslut

meet the reader :: the non-fiction, adventure maven

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AU performed her own adventurous escape from the world of journalism. when she’s not reading about the travels of others (intentional and unexpected) she enjoys running and spending time with her awesome kids.

do you prefer to read fiction or nonfiction?
I pretty much ONLY read nonfiction, but I don’t like books by journalists. I like books written by people who are actually a part of what they are writing about. So non-fiction accounts of, say, the housing market crash are not my thing. But I like books about plane crashes!

what’s the one thing about reading that makes it impossible to do without?
I would find it so hard to live without the pure escape of good books. More than movies or TV, I find it easy to get ‘lost’ in a book. And during the day, I’m consciously or subconsciously mulling over the book, and the details of the book seem to make life richer. Sometimes when I’m feeling down, I realize: “I’m not reading any good books right now.” That is, having a good book makes life livable.

name one book that’s been on your list that you still haven’t gotten around to reading?
Great question. I would say Three Cups of Tea. I think I was given that book three times, and in spite of all those copies, I’ve never read it. Ditto for Eat Pray Love. I guess there’s a moment when a book becomes so over-hyped that there’s no way to read it without impossibly high expectations.

what was the last great book that you read that you recommend to nearly everyone?
Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado. This is an amazing book, and exactly what a memoir should be: a reflection from AFAR on a dramatic event of the past. Nando Parrado was a member of the Uruguayan rugby team that crashed in the Andes. You probably know this story from the famous book, Alive! Alive is also a good book, but this is much, much better, because Parrado takes you through not just the outward experience of the crash and how they survived, but the inner experience as he wrestles with his injury, the death of his friends and family, and the certainty of their own

death if they don’t escape. What makes this book so great is that nearly 40 years passed before he wrote it. It seems most memoirs these days are written right after the events take place. Some books I would put in this category are: In An Instant by Lee and Bob Woodruff (about his being injured in an IED attack in Iraq), and A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides (by kidnapped journalist David Rohde and his wife Kristen Mulvihill. But really, great memoirs need time…. as Katherine Graham wrote in her memoir, Personal History, she could speak frankly about her life because so many of her family and friends were dead! As a result, she wrote very frankly about her own parents, her husband and other aspects of her life. Another memoir written from a distance is Coming out of the Ice by Victor Frankle. It’s an absolutely amazing book, about an American teenager who was sent to the Gulag in Stalin’s Russia. It’s heartbreaking and tragic, yet because he has written the book as an old man, he also looks back philosophically and says, amazingly, he wouldn’t change anything.

last great book someone recommended to you?
My brother told me I should read Robinson Crusoe because I like adventure stories and maritime history. This is an exception to my general rule of not liking fiction. It was awesome. A good adventure story, and surprisingly accessible given how long ago it was written. The best part is the way he uses English, always talking about ‘contrivances’ and ‘vapors’ in his head. But a very good survival story.

is there any genre that you normally don’t read but feel there is one great representative who would be a shame to miss?
I guess I would put Robinson Crusoe in that category. It’s fiction but I actually enjoyed it. That said, I HATED Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. (I thought I would like the survival aspects.) Another exception to my anti-journalist rule is Candice Millard’s River Of Doubt, about Teddy Roosevelt’s journey through the Amazon — of course she did not participate in that event, but she wrote an amazing book. And I also have an exception to my own love of memoirs: Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints felt very charlatan-ish, and I left that book having a lot less respect for her. I also started to read The Only Road North about a young American evangelical traveling in Africa, but it was incredibly poorly written. So not all memoirs are good.

what was one of your favorite childhood books?
No doubt: Gone with the Wind. Not a children’s book, but as a pre-teen, I read my paperback so many times, it feel into pieces, and then I would read it, section by section. Felt the same way at the time about Roots.

what book would you like to see on the middle school or high school curriculum?
I think they should use more recent, straightforward stories, either fiction or nonfiction. For example, I read The Hatchet after someone gave a copy to my son. What a great book! Of course, it’s exactly my genre — survival stories — but it was written in a very modern and straightforward way. I remember reading The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner in high school, and being completely and utterly baffled. I feel the same way about Catcher in the Rye. If you have to explain why a book is important — rather than having its importance be self-evident — well, i think there’s a problem there.

what book did you read in high school that you’re glad was assigned?
I’m glad I had to read Heart of Darkness. Generally, I don’t understand fiction, but we studied the heck out of that one, so by the end I felt like I had a basic grasp of the themes. It was awesome to make the connection to Apocalypse Now and TS Eliot’s The Wasteland. Generally, unless someone can walk me through a fiction book + tell me why it’s significant, I can’t really get the hang of it.

how do you find the books you read?
Another good question. I usually search via topic area on Audible and sometimes Audible correctly suggests a book I might like. When I worked in journalism, I had access to new titles, so I just picked out the memoirs that interested me. I wish Amazon did a better job of suggesting books I would like. I think my interests are actually pretty narrow, so it wouldn’t be that hard to make the right suggestion!

books and travel, what comes to mind?
One of the best travel books I read recently was Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman. Again, this follows the pattern of someone writing about dramatic events that happened to them years ago. She describes traveling to China with a friend in 1980s, while her friend gradually loses her mind. It’s a haunting story, very well told.

what’s up next?
I think I want to read more about Teddy Roosevelt! He’s such a likeable figure from afar, but the more you learn about him, you realize that ‘national heroes’ are actually insufferable people up close!

Written by Gabrielle

February 15, 2011 at 8:47 am

Posted in books, interviews

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favorite places :: flying

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we were on the J train headed towards manhattan. just as we crossed over the bridge, as we rolled past the projects on the lower east side, she leaned towards the window and said, “this is it. my favorite place—because it looks like you’re flying.” then she made a whooshing sound and possibly some superhero arm movements. it did look a little like we were flying: the steel poles were out of sight and the cars, pedestrians, and cyclists were just below eye level.

Written by Gabrielle

October 27, 2010 at 5:32 am

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