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Thursday, August 28,2014

Book reviews: Notes from Neil

New York, New York (and elsewhere)

by Neil Rajala

THURSDAY, AUG. 28 — I received an array of questions from one of this newsletter's readers last week about the book review process itself - how I got started, what the process is, how much and when I read, etc. Answering them was a good reminder for me how much I enjoy this, both the writing about what I've read and the responses from you I'm privileged to read every week. I've said it before, but thank you again for staying in touch and letting me know what you think. I'm truly grateful, and this would be a lot less fun without you. Here's what we're reading:



GOTHAM UNBOUND
Ted Steinberg

It's an accepted part of the history of greater New York City that Henry Hudson carried out and documented the first significant exploration of the area back in 1609. Despite his extensive writing about the adventure, it's nearly impossible today for historians and scientists to know exactly where he went and what he saw. Even in its most basic geographical shapes and features, the area Hudson called Mannahatta is so vastly different today as to be unrecognizable based on his observations. Hudson explored a watery, marshy estuary, teeming with wildlife and a water-centric native population.

Mr. Steinberg's book tells the story of 400 years of human-powered change, describing in great detail the transformation from a land of ocean, rivers, lakes and swamps into the densely populated concrete jungle of today. Water went from above-ground abundance to being routed through underground tunnels; swamps and marshes disappeared under tons of human landfill waste (which allowed the land to be reclaimed later for habitation); lakes and streams were removed, or in some cases just moved, to allow for the overlay of Manhattan's grid system of streets. Monumental oyster beds, that once fed the native and immigrant populations abundantly and for free, were eliminated. It's a truly remarkable story, and at times it feels like the area should never have become what it is today. Nature isn't as easily tamed as we like to think, and she certainly did fight back, but the impressive capacity for human ingenuity (and greed) overcame all obstacles to create modern-day Manhattan. A huge story, very well researched and told. kobo eBook



WE ARE NOT OURSELVES

Matthew Thomas

Yet another remarkable debut novel, in a year that has seen a surprising number of them. Mr. Thomas tells the story of an "average" American family with impressive sensitivity and an understanding of the small-scale heroics and and compromises that make up our daily lives.

Eileen Tumulty is born in 1941 to working class Irish parents in Woodside, Queens. Over the seventy years of her life described in the novel, she remains transfixed and frustrated by her idea of the American dream. She wants what her own parents didn't have, and is convinced that she deserves it. Her dream of owning a nice house in a respectable neighborhood becomes the reality of a multi-family building in an economically deteriorating section of the city. Her marriage to an up-and-coming scientist and college professor becomes confused when she realizes he has far less interest in climbing the economic ladder than she. Their son suffers through the obstacles of identity and motivation common to all adolescents. The path she is expecting to lead her to a perfect life remains tantalizingly out of reach. And there is a shadow encroaching on her life, like a monster in a horror story that hangs just out of sight. When the shadow arrives and changes everything, the author does a brilliant job of focusing on what really matters in this life - our untapped strength, our bond to others, love, family and, above all, our ability to adapt to whatever comes our way. An epic tale with real emotional resonance. kobo eBook



TOY STORIES: PHOTOS OF CHILDREN FROM AROUND THE WORLD AND THEIR FAVORITE THINGS
Gabriele Galimberti

Every once in a while, a book of photos will stop me in my tracks and not let me go until I've looked at, and pondered, every image. Ms. Galimberti's collection of children around the world and their favorite toys did exactly that recently. She took a simple idea and created a fascinating sociological study, visiting over 50 countries in the process.

There's an obvious comparison between the photos of children in Western and other affluent locations, sitting amidst rooms full of toys (can all of them really be their favorite?), and the shots of a child with but a single, well worn plaything. Is there a difference between the large gatherings of items, which indicated to me more the pride of possession; and the obviously much-handled (loved?) single items of the children who obviously have less in their lives overall?  I couldn't help but think that this book would be ideal for parents to share with their children and initiate a discussion about the different circumstances and attitudes of the children involved.  

I've never been a collector of photographic essay books, but working in a bookstore has allowed me to discover some that have moved and/or fascinated me; this week's Toy Stories being a great example. Have you ever been transfixed by a book of photographs?

Until next week,


Neil

NeilNeil Rajala is Currently Director of Community & Business Services for Schuler Books, Neil's decade with the company has included the wearing of many different hats - and lots and lots of reading.

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