Review: In the Shadow of King Saul

In the Shadow of King Saul, Jerome Charyn. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2018.

Summary: A collection of eleven essays spanning nearly thirty years of Charyn’s literary career, on the New York in which he grew up, his family, other authors and celebrities.

Jerome Charyn may be one of America’s most prolific writers, with over fifty books in fifty years. Michael Chabon has called him “one of the most important writers in American literature.” I only recently became acquainted with him when I reviewed Sergeant Salinger, a novel based on the World War 2 experiences of J. D. Salinger.

This collection of essays, second in Bellevue Literary Press’s “The Art of the Essay” series is a collection of ten essays by Charyn from 1978 to 2005, plus an introductory essay, “Silence and Song” that both traces his life as a writers and explains the selection of essays under his rubric of silence and song. We learn about his childhood in a poor and rough neighborhood in the Bronx, his discovery of his love of words, studies at Columbia, and the beginnings of his writing career.

“The Sadness of Saul” is in some ways the archetype for other essays in this collection. Saul reflects the contrast of silence to David’s songs. Charyn finds Saul of greater interest, a tragic figure who did not want to be king, who lacked a voice. Charyn believes writing begins in the silences.

He offers a fascinating account of the history of Ellis Island, the power brokers in the Bronx neighborhoods of his youth in “Haunch Paunch and Jowl” and the meaning of the “Faces on the Wall” in the rise of modern cinema. Most significant are the authors about which he writes–Saul Bellow, Anzia Yezierska, and a lengthy mini-biography of Isaac Babel. The last two essays are more personal, focused around his mother, “the dark lady from Belorusse,” the inattention of her husband and the letters from her brother in Mogilev that sustained her, and her angst when war interrupted them.

It strikes me that this is a book for New Yorkers and followers of Charyn. Some essays had the feeling of “inside baseball” that those familiar with his context, or the writers of whom he writes, would find fascinating. For me, they suggested that some of these places and people might be worth knowing more of. A few of the essays, on Saul, on Josh Gibson, the Negro league star who sank into insanity, and the forgotten life of Louise Brooks, all of them “silent figures,” were of greater interest.

This is part of a series on the art of the essay. The artfulness of Charyn is to awaken our interest in times and places and people outside our awareness. He is able to connect experiences we have in common, or even the essence of what it means for us to be human, our aspirations and longings, our hopes and despairs, our silences and our songs with the stories on these pages.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Book Row

Book Row, Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador. New York: Skyhorse, 2019 (originally published in 2003).

Summary: A history of Book Row, a collection of used and antiquarian bookstores along and around Fourth Avenue in New York City.

Most of us who have loved books for many years have our favorite used and antiquarian bookstores. Many are memories. Others are still operating. Some were in out of the way places, some in bigger cities. In some cases, I remember places with multiple stores near one another. I think of some college towns like Ann Arbor and Madison where you could go from one store to the next. At one time, Harvard Square was like that. Now imagine all of those stores in one place, within walking distance of each other. There once was a place like that in New York City, known as Book Row, with upwards of twenty five stores along a one mile stretch on Fourth Avenue or one of the side streets. The heyday of Book Row ran from the 1890’s to the 1970’s.

Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador are Book Row veterans who have captured in a thoroughly enjoyable account the wonder of this place. One can almost smell the books and imagine the booksellers who delighted in the poor college students and the curmudgeons who begrudgingly permitted the worthy into their domains. They begin with George D. Smith, who began selling on Fourth Avenue in the 1890’s and created the ideal of the Book Row bookseller. He was among the foremost of antiquarian booksellers, who both acquired collections and helped build some of the greatest collections including that of Henry Huntington. He started his store near the Bible House, the home of the American Bible Society, which played a surprising role in many of the stores. He was a pioneer in the use of catalogues to market his books. He was a master on the auction floor, trusted by many famous clients to acquire books.

The authors go on to recount the lives of the other stores and booksellers along Fourth Avenue. What is striking is how importance the training of these booksellers was. They worked for publishers, they served as “book scouts” for established stores in acquiring needed inventory, they apprenticed in stores learning every aspect of the business. Then, often still at a young age, they launched out on there own, or sometimes with a partner. (The two Jacks, Biblo and Tannen, complemented each other in temperament and skills in one of the most famous Book Row businesses.) One of the marvelous aspects that comes up again and again is how booksellers actually helped newcomers enter the business, offering lots of books at low prices.

Perhaps part of the reason for this practice was the realization that Book Row was a draw because of the sheer number of stores. Everyone from poor college students buying books in the outdoor bins (seven for a quarter!) to rich collectors as well as business people and travelers from all over the country and the world came to Book Row to feed their particular love of books. The booksellers built on this shared interest and formed the Fourth Avenue Booksellers Association whose first act was to fight efforts to remove the sidewalk bargain stands that moved merchandise and brought people into the stores. They worked together from the 1940’s on to promote Book Row as a destination and eventually to host book fairs. They also contributed support and leadership to the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, which continues to promote the ethics and interests of the antiquarian book trade to this day.

Why did Book Row, apart from the venerable Strand, not survive? Two words: “rents” and “age.” Some operations, like the Strand, passed through two or more generations (three at least with the Strand). But beginning in the 1950’s several things happened. Wanamakers, the department store that was a magnet to the district, closed. The building owners started raising rents or seeking to convert buildings to high rent apartments. For a time, booksellers moved to lower rent storefronts. Some converted to doing mail order out of their homes, no longer opening their shops to “off the street” trade. Some moved away, opening shops elsewhere for a time. By the 1970’s, few were left and by the 1990’s they were all gone.

For a time, only the Strand, which owns its own building, was left (and still is, a destination in itself, with its miles of books). Then Steve Crowley opened Alabaster Books in 1997, still in business at the date of this review. The book also mentions Gallagher’s Art & Fashion Gallery, which was still in business in 2004 but no longer appears online. So it is now one store plus the Strand holding up the legacy of Book Row.

Oh, how I wish I’d visited Book Row in its heyday! I would have thought I’d died and gone to book heaven. This book is the next best thing. The accounts of the stores and their proprietors offered hours of delight imagining browsing those shelves. While Book Rows have disappeared in all but a few of the world’s great cities, there are stores still to be found, and even new ones that have opened during the pandemic. If you are so fortunate to have one nearby, treasure it while you can. The business is not easy and not one that usually enriches the bookseller, who certainly cannot survive on your good wishes alone. I cannot imagine that wandering from website to website would every be as delightful as a day spent wandering among the stores on Book Row. What a time that must have been!

Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Summary: The year that changed the life of a young woman in New York, remembered when photographs trigger a flashback twenty-eight years later.

Katey and her husband Val are part of the social elite at an exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. For the first time, photographs taken by Walker Evans on New York’s subways in the late 1930’s are on exhibit. Among those photos are two of him. One elegantly dressed, a portrait of subdued power. The other, more gaunt in the tattered clothes of a laborer, but with a smile. Tinker Grey. And it brings back the year in between and how Katey’s life changed, beginning her rise from a working class immigrant background.

At the end of 1937, Katey and her roommate Eve decide to do the town for New Years. Eve is from the midwest with high hopes. Katya, now Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable) is working in a secretarial pool for a New York law firm, living by her wits and struggling to make ends meet, but also enjoying the city. They are in a jazz club and in walks Tinker Grey in a cashmere coat. They end up ringing in the New Year, and Tinker leaves his monogrammed lighter behind, giving them a chance to see him again. A subsequent night on the town ends in an accident leaving Eve with leg injuries and a scar. Tinker offers his home to recover. They fall in love, and Katey is nudged out.

It’s a story that traces Katey’s year of 1938 in her voice, one that is whip-smart and shrewd. Both her external and internal dialogue make this book, a feat for a male writer. We see her rise from the secretarial pool to editorial assistant for a new magazine launched by the publisher of Conde’ Nast. She recounts the nights at the clubs, the jazz of the Thirties, and her relationships with Wallace Wolcott and Dicky Vanderwhile, the latter on the rebound from one with Tinker Grey after Eve refused to marry him and went to Hollywood. One of the most interesting characters is Anne Grandyn, whose wealth helped make Tinker. She made him in other ways, and unbeknownst to Katey, helps make her as well. Instead of being a rival for Tinker, in an odd way, she is an ally.

Meanwhile Tinker’s life unravels. From Central Park, he moves to a flop house, in some ways following his late artist brother–and hence that second picture in the gallery. And yet the move in his life is from a learned upper crust civility, schooled by George Washington’s The Rules of Civility to rediscovery of the New York he loved best.

Not only does Towles do a masterful job at writing in a woman’s voice, he captures the resurgence of New York on the eve of World War Two as the country climbed out of the Depression. He explores questions of class and upward mobility. Both Tinker and Katey rise from modest beginnings on their wits, yet come to different ends. We wonder if the 1966 Katey, confronted with the images of Tinker, wonders about the life she’s embraced. Or perhaps she was reminded of the year in which her life turned, the gains and the losses, and the course that was set.

I went back to read this after reading Towles’s masterful A Gentleman in Moscow earlier this year. It is hard to believe this is a first novel. So often, we just live our lives. In both of Towles’s works, we see characters who not only live their lives, but, through circumstances, are brought to reflect upon their course and what they’ve meant, inviting the reader to do the same.

Review: The Gods of Gotham

Gods of Gotham

The Gods of Gotham, Lindsay Faye. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012.

Summary: The first in the author’s Timothy Wilde series, in which Wilde, a newly installed New York Policeman in 1845, encounters a blood-covered girl, whose story leads to the discovery of twenty dead children and an assignment to find the killer before anti-Irish rage consumes the city.

Timothy Wilde and his older brother Val were orphaned when their parents died in a fire. The brothers survived by their wits, especially Val’s, who nevertheless became a New York City fireman, while dousing his pain in opiates. Timothy struggled with the life Val had chosen, and pursued a different path, tending bar on the lower end of Manhatten.

Until the fire. Until the bar was destroyed, he was burned in an explosion, and rescued by his brother. The fortune he’d accumulated was lost in the fire–a fortune with which he hoped to marry Mercy Underhill, a Protestant minister’s daughter who he had admired since childhood for both her looks and her charitable work among New York’s poor.

Val, ensconced in politics, gets both himself and Timothy a job on the newly formed New York City Police Department, the “copper stars” or “coppers.” Maintaining order in the city has become much more difficult with a mass influx of Irish immigrants driven to seek a new life by the Irish Potato Famine. Timothy is not crazy about the work, particularly after he arrests a poor woman not in her right mind who had killed her infant son and takes her to the Tombs, the New York City jail.

Returning home to his apartment above Mrs. Boehme’s bakery one night, a young girl covered in blood collides with him at his door. Gradually, he gets the story out of her, not only of little Liam’s gruesome death by the dark hooded man at Silkie Marsh’s brothel, but the other children who died similarly and were buried in a mass grave on the north edge of town. Subsequent investigation reveals that the girl, Bird Daly, is telling the truth for once, each child being cut open brutally in the shape of a cross. Chief Matsell tasks Wilde with finding the murderer before the news breaks and anti-Irish sentiment reaches a flash point.

The story takes many twists and turns from there as several letters are received, including one to the New York papers, and one to Dr. Palsgrave, the some-time coroner who determined the cause of the deaths. There is another murder, a child hung on the door of the Catholic Church, seemingly incriminating Fr. Sheehy. Timothy is warned off the investigation, and faces death several times as well as riots as feelings reach a boiling point. His relation with his brother is strained, as he thinks the brother has taken away Bird Daly, or may even be the murderer.

The novel reveals a seamy side of New York involving brothels, child prostitution and Protestant-Catholic hatreds and racial prejudice. We witness a police department that is an organ of party patronage. Yet in the end, Wilde solves the crime with the help of some butcher paper on which he works out all the evidence until he finally realizes where it points. For his troubles, Chief Matsell assigns him to solve crimes rather than prevent them. And so a new series is born!

Much of the dialogue is in “flash,” a secret language that derived from the British criminal underground and used among the working classes of the day. Chief Matsell is a historical figure and actually compiled a lexicon of the language, which he is seen doing during the story. The author provides an abbreviated glossary at the beginning with a number of terms.

Tensions between brothers, a possible serial killer of child prostitutes, the grit and bustle of mid-nineteenth century New York, and characters who are not always what they seem all make for a gripping read. I’m glad for the Barnes and Noble bookseller who recommended this book. Don’t be surprised if you see subsequent numbers of this series (now up to three) reviewed here.