Category Archives: Books

Like books? So do we. The Memorial Library captures something unique of the history and culture of the American people. While our collection covers all the bases, we’ve also got some unexpected gems – and we’re always refining our stock. Want to keep abreast of the newest arrivals, the timeless classics, the downright quirky? Read on.

‘A Time to Be Born’ by Dawn Powell

As a brand-new New Yorker when I moved in 1987 from Miami to Manhattan, I was hungry for all the city had to offer. My mother had been born in New York, and I had family who still lived there, but like all newcomers, I was determined to make this dazzling metropolis my own. I moved into a studio apartment with my best friend John (a budding investment banker and self-styled bon vivant) on West 74th Street, in a pre-war apartment building fittingly called ‘The Fitzgerald’. Instead of immersing myself in contemporary fiction set in the city of that decade, I was consumed with the writers chronicling an earlier New York. My reading habits were mainly informed by the serendipity of secondhand and bargain bookshelves (RIP, Gryphon Books, Coliseum Books, Gotham Book Mart and so many others). Along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos and Dorothy Parker, I devoured the sophisticated, biting satire of Dawn Powell, a prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays, film scripts, book reviews and diaries recounting life in her adopted city.

E.B. White famously wrote of three types of New Yorkers: ‘Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.’ Powell was the latter,  a transplant who made the journey from small town Ohio and never looked back (except, notably, in fiction, in her series of mid-West novels). She propelled herself from an early life of hardship, suffering the loss of her mother at a young age, the neglect of an itinerant, ineffectual father and the abuse of a real-life wicked stepmother who burned her early journals and planned to prevent her from attending high school. She ran away from home to move in with a beloved aunt who encouraged her literary and college aspirations. After graduation, she arrived in New York City in 1918 to make her name as a writer.

Powell’s great canvas was the city. For all the heartbreak she would endure there, including poor health, a rocky marriage and the birth of a developmentally disabled son, she managed to churn out dazzling novels that capture the brittle, ambitious, backbiting milieu of publishing and the arts in New York of the mid-twentieth century. Few of the literati were immune from her acid pen. Reviewing ‘A Time to Be Born’ in The Nation in 1942, Diana Trilling wrote: ‘Miss Powell is one of the wittiest women around and our best answer to the familiar question, “Who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit?”’ But despite the critical recognition in her lifetime, Powell was overshadowed by male contemporaries like Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway.

She would be the subject of many ‘revivals’ in successive years, but biographer Tim Page probably did the most to ensure her place in the literary pantheon by publishing her diaries and letters. Critic Terry Teachout named her one of America’s best novelists, and a writer in The New York Times Book Review raved: ‘[S]he is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald … and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh, the writer to whom she’s most often compared.’ Her status was cemented when her books were reissued in the prestigious Library of America series.

I chose A Time to Be Born, published in 1942, to blog about because of the serendipity of seeing these words in its opening pages, an echo of the times we’re living in today: 

This was no time to cry over one broken heart. It was no time to worry about Vicky Haven or indeed any young lady crossed in love, for now the universe, nothing less, was your problem. You woke in the morning with the weight of doom on your head. You lay with eyes shut wondering why you dreaded the day; was it a debt, was it a lost love? — and then you remembered the nightmare. It was a dream, you said, nothing but a dream, and the covers were thrown aside, the dream was over, now for the day. Then, fully awake, you remembered that it was no dream.

This passage will sound familiar to any lockdown reader in the global pandemic of 2020-21. The narrator’s nightmare in A Time to Be Born isn’t a virus, however, but the conflagration in Europe on the eve of the United States’ impending entry into World War II. The novel is a social satire in the vein of William Makepeace Thackery’s Vanity Fair (featuring the scheming social climber Becky Sharp), glimpsed through the gimlet eye of Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age New York society novels. Powell doesn’t hesitate to prick the vanities of socialites who promoted themselves by way of the war effort, in which the ‘ominous smell of gunpowder was matched by a rising cloud of Schiaparelli’s Shocking. … Off they rode in the new car, the new mink, the new emerald bracelet, the new electrically treated complexion, presented by or extorted from the loving-hearted gentlemen who make both women and wars possible.’

Powell savages her characters, but lovingly, and considered her novels social histories. As she wrote in her diaries: ‘Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out.’ While at times she may seem as catty as today’s feuding internet celebrities, she caricatures women who are constricted by the limited roles allowed to them and the men who take advantage of (and reinforce) those inequities. Her female characters rise and fall according to their skill in negotiating the sexist obstacle course of their era. It’s brutal sport that still plays out in this century, as any woman can testify.  

Front and center are a New York power couple: newspaper publisher Julian Evans and his ambitious mistress turned second wife, best-selling novelist and social commentator Amanda Keeler Evans. The two were said to be based on real-life magazine magnate Henry Luce and his wife, playwright, politician and socialite Clare Boothe Luce, although Powell was cagy about this, likely for libel reasons. With her husband’s publishing machine pulling out all the stops to promote her historical romance, Such Is the Legend, Amanda features on every war relief committee and magazine cover, as industrialists, politicians and prominent journalists fill her dining room by night. 

Into this rarified world steps an old friend from back home, banker’s daughter and boarding school pal, Ethel Carey, who wants Amanda to help her in a mission of mercy: rescuing Vicky Haven, the third of their schoolgirl trio, from a disastrous romantic obsession. Amanda doesn’t care about ‘little Vicky’, but she does have a motive for helping her. She makes sure that Julian finds her old friend a job at one of his trade publications, moves her to New York and gives her the loan of a studio, which Amanda secretly uses by day for rendezvous with old flame and struggling writer Ken Saunders. She even invites him to her Fifth Avenue soirees, under cover of being Vicky’s date. At first, Vicky is unaware of the deception, but she and Ken soon become friends and allies, disillusioned with their roles as Amanda’s puppets.

With these ingredients, Powell sets into motion the wheel of her characters’ changing fortunes. Along the way, she gleefully skewers the opportunistic socialites, ruthless capitalists, ambitious wordsmiths and tippling artists who populate her pages, managing to both mock and sympathise with them. Her worst censure is reserved for figures like Julian Evans, whose monstrous ego can only tolerate the company of those he can control and whose fortunes were made on the cannon fodder of the ‘Little Man’. Julian isn’t disturbed by the turning of the magic wheel (as Powell titled an earlier novel, evoking the fickle operation of fate). He knows that with ‘a little shrewd planning, a few conferences with bankers, lawyers, gamblers—a little discreet hijacking possibly—and Evans would be on top again as usual.’ 

It’s hard to find much to sympathise with in such a man, although Powell tries when she pits him against the private investigator he hires to follow his wife, a ‘short thick man with boiled gray eyes’, who, when Julian appears to be crushed by evidence of Amanda’s infidelities, says, ‘What’s the matter? If she wasn’t that way you wouldn’t have set up trailing her, would you? Don’t get touchy, there, governor. You started this deal, you know. You knew what time it was.’

 On the other hand, reader, Amanda could be any one of us, in lockdown: ‘Papers, notebooks, cream jars, a deck of cards and a ten-cent-store dream book were scattered over the pretty coverlet, and Amanda’s bed desk appeared to be nothing less than a ouija board with a big YES in one corner and a big NO in the other.’ 

In this satirical account of an ambitious, unapologetic female striver, Powell points up how harshly Amanda is judged for doing things her successful male rivals did every day with no consequences. One can only hope that in some alternative fictional universe, beyond the end of Powell’s book, Amanda is still pointing that planchette with a big YES to all corners of the world. She’s a scoundrel we hate to love, but do nonetheless.

Powell, who would live and write in her beloved city for forty-eight years, died in 1965. Her husband pre-deceased her, and a cousin assumed legal guardianship of her forty-four year old son. She was buried in Potter’s Field on Hart Island (another echo of the pandemic that would, over a half-century later, batter the city, with an overflow of Covid-19 victims buried there last spring). She may have died destitute, but she left us, in her wealth of words, a social history of a vanished New York.

After three decades of living there, the city left its mark on me too, with its hungry, restless intelligence; its cast of striving, conniving, brilliant, original characters; its inexhaustible creative energy. Uprooting myself to move to England in 2019 was both difficult and surprisingly easy, since the city had given me all the tools and education I needed to make my way in the world. In part, I have Dawn Powell to thank, for providing inspiration and wit and the courage to persevere.

–post by Suzanne Solomon

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Light reading recommendations

I was thirteen when my grandmother snuck me my first romance novel.

Up until that point my mother (a librarian) and her mother (a librarian) and her father (a librarian) had raised me nearly exclusively on classics. While I had read plenty of George Elliot, Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, Shelley (both Mary and Percy), and Ernest Hemingway, the closest I had gotten to a romance novel was Anna Karenina.

The book my grandmother snuck me — sandwiched between the folds of the New York Times — was about as far from the classics as you could get. The plot revolved around a young woman sneaking into the British navy in the early 1800s to avoid marrying a man she didn’t love. Eventually, of course, she fell for the captain and he for her and the two of them ended up together, but the wrenches thrown in the way of their eventual happiness kept me entertained for days.

Discovering romance novels didn’t mean I gave up reading highbrow literature. I still love literary fiction. It’s just that now I intersperse those readings with more… fluffy books. What can I say? Sometimes it’s nice to know you can disappear into a world where a ridiculously wealthy heiress and an only-pretending-to-be-poor-actually-he’s-a- Duke can make a go of it, despite those seemingly overwhelming odds.

As we find ourselves increasingly indoors, barraged by the news, and probably in need of a healthy dose of escapism, I thought I would recommend some of my favorite pieces of lighthearted literature. In the spirit of maintaining the American-British connection (even while isolating) I’ve chosen works by authors from both countries. Everyone in these stories lives happily ever after, but it’s still fun to follow them on their (frequently winding) road to eventual bliss.

 

nighthawk

1. Night Hawk – Beverly Jenkins
An iconic author of historical romances, in 2017 Jenkins was awarded the Romance Writers of America Nora Roberts lifetime achievement award. Check out ‘Night Hawk’ — the story of a hardened bounty hunter who rescues a gorgeous spitfire in 1884 Wyoming — to see why.

 

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2. The Right Swipe – Alisha Rai
In 2015, Rai became the first author to have a self-published book listed on The Washington Post’s best romance novel list, and followed it up by making Entertainment Weekly’s list of 10 best romance novels in 2017. ‘The Right Swipe’, the first in her latest series, is a contemporary romance about a CEO who hooks up with a former football player in what is definitely just a casual fling. Right?

 

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3. Faro’s Daughter – Georgette Heyer
Georgette Heyer is the undisputed queen of the Regency Romance; in fact, she pretty much invented the genre. Heyer’s books are always impeccably well-researched, which makes them even more fun to read. Set in 1795, ‘Faro’s Daughter’ follows the plucky Deborah Grantham, a penniless orphan who has taken to working in her aunt’s gambling house. Sparks fly when she crosses paths with stubborn Max Ravenscar, the richest man in London. With such wide differences in their social status the two can never have a future… or can they?

 

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4. Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston
The surprise hit of 2019, ‘Red, White & Royal Blue’ follows the romance between first son Alex Claremont-Diaz and British Prince Henry. Initially rivals, Alex and Henry are forced to spend time together to ease diplomatic tensions between their two nations. But when what started as a fake truce turns into something real and deep, how will their families — not to mention their nations — react?

 

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5. Deception – Selena Montgomery (Stacey Abrams)
Selena Montgomery is the pen name for Stacey Abrams, the 2018 democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia and the first African-American woman to give a response to the State of the Union address. In her spare time, Abrams writes romance novels like ‘Deception’, where protagonist Fin Borders tries to help an innocent woman accused of murder. In the process, Fin meets FBI Special Agent Caleb Matthews. Caleb is deep undercover and hiding a desperate history, but he can’t hide the passion he feels for Fin.

 

darkness calls

6. Darkness Calls – Caridad Pineiro
If you’ve had enough of vampires, then this book is not for you. If you take the same attitude towards vampires that most people do toward chocolate (what do you mean ‘too much?’) then The Calling series, by best-selling author Caridad Pineiro, is definitely up your alley. In this first book, FBI Agent Diana Reyes finds her world turned upside down when her father is killed in a drive-by shooting. Her endeavors to catch her father’s killer throw her in with Ryder Latimer, who is dark, dangerous, and has maybe possibly been alive since the Civil War.

 

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7. Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan
Now a blockbuster movie, Kwan’s satire about a professor discovering her boyfriend’s family is part of Singapore’s one percent is a fun foray into completely over the top wealth. The plot is fast-paced, the characters engaging, and following people who can do literally anything they want right now is especially fun. There are significant differences between the book and the movie, so even if you’ve seen the plot on the big screen, it’s worth checking the book out.

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America’s Answer to Pratchett

Today I’d like to talk about one of my favorite new American authors, A. Lee Martinez. For any who like the insightful satire Terry Pratchett used when dealing with matters of high fantasy Martinez does in stories taking place in the modern. Able to poke fun at the subject matter while simultaneously writing a love letter to monsters, elves, rogue gods, and animal side kicks the likes of which entertained so many when they were young.

He wrote his first book, Gil’s All Fright Diner, while taking a creative writing class and with its success it seems he has never looked back. What I perhaps enjoy and admire most deeply about his writing is that each of his novels is stand-alone requiring him to create a new world with each story told. While most authors create one world and then expand it I find it truly remarkable to time and again create engrossing and novel takes on fantasy tropes and create literary worlds which suck the reader in.

Whether you want to read about hillbilly vampires and werewolves unwittingly saving the day, an employee for the cryptozoological animal control service, or a dating-service-like process for choosing a deity I highly recommend any and all of his works.

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Book Review: Thanks Obama, My Hopey Changey White House Years

By Danielle Prostrollo

The last few weeks in the library have been a veritable book lover’s Christmas. A ton of new stock has come in, and picking one to highlight was difficult. I picked this one because the subject of the autobiography. The author is a speechwriter and ‘people behind the people’ stories fascinate me.

Thanks Obama: my hopey changey White House Years, by David Litt

thanks obama

To head this review off, I thought the book was great. The story centers around a White House speech writer, David Litt, and his journey from newbie underling to member of Obama’s trusted team. It would be easy to dismiss this book as an Obama love letter, but this is not about the former president. It’s not even actually about the administration. It is rare to get a glimpse into life on The Hill from someone who does not stand directly in the public light.  
 
Equally important and refreshing, is the writing style. The book reads without difficulty, like a buddy is filling you in on his day. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, Litt is a speechwriter, after all. There is an unexpected amount of humor and relatability in the book. He talks about feeling invincible, about moments of awkward embarrassment, and the relatable moments of utter boredom. But, interspersed between these normal-person feelings are trips on Air Force One, nights out at Lincoln Center, and conversations with the President.
 
You don’t need to be a policy wonk to enjoy this book. Anyone interested in a little glimpse into the political life, enjoyed The West Wing, or reads every book that comes about The Hill, will enjoy this read.

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