Tag Archives: New York City novel

Deserves All the Big Praise It’s Getting: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

cover imageI’ve been very selfish with my library copy of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and so I need to bring it back today.

A Little Life is my #1 favorite book so far this year, and I had so many pages marked with Post-its that I had hoped to write a review that would convey the power of this 700+-page novel that pulls you in and keeps you there.

But looking through the passages I have marked, I realize they’re too long – each sentence depends too much on what comes before and after and a single thought is continued over several paragraphs, so you can read an excerpt from the book on the publisher’s Web site instead.

Although written by a woman (the author of The People in the Trees, which I haven’t read yet), A Little Life is about the friendship of four men who roomed together at a Boston-area college (unnamed), then moved to New York City, where two of them were from, and hung out together in various configurations and apartments over the following decades.

They talk a LOT, so there is a lot of passionate, intellectual conversation – with each other, and also with other people who become important in their lives over time – about art and life. What may seem like youthful self-centeredness early in the book (which might be annoy readers who were annoyed by The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer – another long, very New York City, novel) is tempered by the overall tone of sad retrospection.

There’s a great deal of humor in A Little Life, but the compelling main character, Jude, has a hidden past, so even as people who come into his orbit are inevitably drawn to him, he tries to keep them from getting too close, which gives the whole story its air of tragedy.

If you like to get absorbed in big novels with lots of deep/witty conversation and observations about the lives of friends, family, and strangers seen on the subway, this is the book of the year for you!

A Little Life was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award. (Winner to be announced Nov. 17th). It doesn’t come out in trade paperback until January 26, 2016, so you’ll have to put the hardcover on your holiday gift wish list.

A Little Life
Yanagihara, Hanya
Doubleday, 2015
978-0-385-53925-8
720 pp.
$30.00, U.S.

Other bloggers’ opinions (all excellent):
As the Crowe Flies (and Reads)
Book Chatter

Lonesome Reader
River City Reading

Youthful Accident or Racial Incident: Upper West Side Story by Susan Pashman

cover imageIn Upper West Side Story, a first novel by philosophy professor and former attorney Susan Pashman, two families in Manhattan are pitted against each other after a tragic accident (possibly a crime) goes from the personal to the political.

The case of two eighth-grade boys – best friends, one white and one black, both in the gifted class and on the chess team – just horsing around or maybe not? – while returning a weekend class trip to Washington, D.C. is nothing like a recent incident of the three black students who opened fire on workers in a Brooklyn school cafeteria, thinks Bettina, who narrates most of the story. Max, the white eighth-grader who becomes a public figure overnight is her son.

Bettina’s a political liberal – an academic – who prides herself on raising her two children – Max and his younger sister Nellie – to be comfortable in a racially diverse, urban environment. Bettina’s husband, Stephen – a city planner enmeshed in local politics – can see clearly how Max and Max’s best friend Cyrus are being used as pawns in the game of racial politics played by the mayor, the district attorney, and most of all the most vocal local activist on racial issues – City Council member Marcus Hake, an African-American fighting for social justice and against racial inequality under the law.

Here’s an excerpt from Upper West Side Story to give you an idea of it:

I stood up to face Stephen, a lump swelling in my throat. “It is simple,” I cried. “I can’t stand all this conniving and second-guessing when the truth is perfectly obvious. It’s always some stupid game with you politicians. But they can’t play games with our son, Stephen. That’s just not going to happen!”

I tore down the hall to our bedroom and stared out at the city. Down every street, behind every window, lives were being ruined – choked by greed, poisoned by ambition, obliterated by self-interest. The city stared back at me, a professor of political theory, a stalwart campaigner for a more just world.

“Sweetheart,” Stephen said gently He stood in the doorway to our room. “I know this could be a bit hard on Max, but it’ll be worse if we try to head it off. Hake will get the press revved up and they’ll mix this in with the cafeteria case even if the D.A. does nothing. It’s better to let them investigate and find nothing. If we get in his way, Hake will blow things up as he always does.

“The mayor’s obviously desperate for a bone to throw to him. The D.A., I’m sure just wants to keep up the office’s image as tough on crimes against kids. She won’t be as eager as the mayor is to yield to Hake. It’s a game, as you said, but I think we have to let it run its course.”

“I won’t have our son made a scapegoat! I won’t let those games get anywhere near him. We owe Max some peace!”

I turned back to the window. I felt a tear start down my cheek and brushed it aside. “They have to leave us in peace, Stephen. You and me, but most of all Max.”

Author Susan Pashman has clearly thought a lot about race, especially in terms of schools and parenting. In January, she started a Kids & Race blog where she posts on these issues. Writing a nuanced novel about a family in crisis allows her to delve more deeply into the complexity of reality vs. theory and imagine what’s happening out of the public eye when an event that you’re used to reading about in the news hits home.

Harvard Square Editions is a publishing house formed by and for Harvard University alumni to publish literary fiction with a social or environmental message. The message in Upper West Side Story that racial politics don’t tell the whole story occasionally overpowers the fiction, but the multilayered story of family, city, and the law, told in the voices of Bettina and Max is moving, and the clash of Bettina’s academic theories and liberal ideals with her maternal desire to protect and defend her son is realistic and thought-provoking.

Upper West Side Story
Pashman, Susan
Harvard Square Editions
May 28, 2015
978-1-941861-03-5
276 pp.
$22.95, softcover

DIsclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for review. (I’m not part of the blog tour going on now, but check out it out for a chance to win one of 15 copies of Upper West Side Story.)

Diary of a Bad Boyfriend: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman @HenryHolt

cover image of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., a first novel by Adelle Waldman is a wickedly fun read about Nate, a magazine writer/book reviewer living in Brooklyn who finally has his own book coming out.

A late bloomer where girlfriends were concerned, Nate, at age 30, has slowly begun to notice that the girls he’s dating begin to expect a little more from him than he wants to give a little sooner than they did before. He, on the other hand, after years of temping and living like an impoverished student, is starting to notice the effect his book contract has had on the women he runs into at book events and in the local hangouts of his generation’s literati. For Nate, playing the field has just become a whole lot easier and more pleasurable.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. explores the world of male-female relationships in the context of the contemporary Brooklyn literary scene, with all its perils and pitfalls. Nate is a Jewish guy from somewhere else who came to New York to be a writer, like so many others before him. The author says in an interview that she intended The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. to be a response to novels like Goodbye, Columbus. While reading, I was reminded of Philip Roth’s early books, which the sexist perspective of didn’t bother me when I read them in my twenties; female characters in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. are portrayed from the perspective of the male characters or narrators who desire them or don’t desire them.

To Nate, a serial monogamist with his short trail of exes, it is clear that he is more respectful of women in general than his friends are and puts more effort into a relationship than they do. He honestly can’t fathom why one of his recent exes calls him an a**hole when she accidentally runs into him on the street at the start of the novel. To most readers, however, it’s likely to be quite clear. This disconnect between what the reader knows and what Nate – a very smart guy who went to Harvard – knows, is where much of the humor in the books stems from, but also most of the painful moments.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. follows Nate into the living rooms and bedrooms (in Nate’s tiny Brooklyn studio, the two are the same) of a certain set of young women in New York, and reveals what Nate – to all appearances a decent-looking, nice, smart guy (now with a book contract!) – is thinking. To young women in New York coming up on thirty or already there – like Juliet, Elisa, and Hannah – Nate’s innermost thoughts could be taken as a call to arms or a good reason to move somewhere else!

From a Gawker interview with author Adelle Waldman, herself a freelance journalist and book reviewer who lives in Brooklyn:

“There was a way in which the book was a response to a certain type of perception I had as a woman that there are these guys that aren’t consciously sexist but take for granted that their intellectual peers are other men, that other men are the ones they’re competing with. Writing a book is a way to challenge that.”

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Waldman, Adelle
Henry Holt & Co.
July 16, 2013
9780805097450
256 pp.
$25.00

Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy from the publisher, Henry Holt, an imprint of Macmillan, through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.