I seek out a book to satisfy #19: A book with a place in the title. I came across this book listed online when I was hunting down some research material for a novel I’m writing called Ghosting. It’s all about haunting and being haunted and is set in none other than New York City. So, you really can’t find better material to help contextualize than a collection of essays about being haunted by New York, which is essentially what this book was all about: the idea of being a writer in NYC, the build up, the perception, the failure of leaving or the release of escaping.
The thing I really liked about this book was reading a book about writers made me want to write more, with more passion, determination, to apply more gusto to the craft. Another thing I really liked about it was the irony from one story to the next. Some writers romanticized the grim and squalor while others were disenchanted by it. For some the crumpling of the glitzy illusion of New York, literary center of the world, was devastating. For others, disillusionment wasn’t an option. Escape wasn’t an option. It was like the idea of New York trapped them and they could never truly exist anywhere else.
When I worked on cruise ships I had a banner from Urban Outfitters that said Home is where you are and I would put it up in my cabin wherever I moved. I thought that was comforting. You don’t need to be in a place that you have always identified as home to be home. You are home wherever you go as long as you make it home. Reading some of these essays in Goodbye to All That made me feel almost claustrophobic because it was like they were confined to Manhattan indefinitely. Even when things were ugly and hard, they still held fast to the idea that they needed to be there. Home is where you are doesn’t apply to everyone, I guess. And in the words of Sheryl Crow, “if it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”
The back-to-back-to-back recounting of September 11th made it feel sometimes like the book was more about 9/11 than writers loving and leaving New York but I guess that’s par for the course in our post-9/11 world. You can’t have one without the other.
As in any collection, some stories are better than others. That might be why it took me a while to read this book in it’s entirety. We’re naturally drawn to some stories and writing styles more than others. Some stories required me to take a couple runs at them before I came down on the other side, while there were quite a few twinkling gems that left me wanting more, which is what a short story should do: satisfy you but leave you wanting more!
I loved Minnesota Nice by Cheryl Strayed; perhaps because I feel like New Yorkers tend to see any politeness I exhibit as a Canadianism. No one likes to be stereotyped. There was another story about taking off for New Zealand by Ruth Curry that I loved because it reminded me of my own journey to that hemisphere. The juxtaposition between beautiful landscape and an inability to feel the happiness you seem responsible to feel when you’re somewhere to close to paradise, it really hit a cord. I love reading books that are sentimental because life is sentimental, even if you pretend to be super jaded and nonchalant – it’s just the way it is, but (somewhat counter-intuitively) I don’t like to read works that seem cheesy or cliche. There’s an impossible sweet spot between sentimental and cheese, which is exactly where this story fell on that spectrum.
There was also a quote in the book from Lauren Elkin, which was so poignant it required instagraming, as exhibited below.
There were a lot of great stories in this book. There were some good stories. And others I didn’t like at all. I think that’s the point of an anthology. If it gives you a good mixture of perspective you aren’t going to relate to or like all of the essays, but that just means it’s appealing to a wide demographic (because someone else is reading it loving the ones you hated and hating the ones you loved). You’re pushing yourself outside your reading comfort zone a little and that’s right where you are when you discover new things you never knew you would like.
In conclusion, which I use to preface this final paragraph, because like a long sermon I’d like to get your attention back in case you’ve been skimming… This was the perfect book to satisfy #19: A book with a place in the title because the place wasn’t just in the title, the place (New York) was so expertly dissected, developed, dreamed, deconstructed, and deliberately explored in this book. There was just a place in the title, this was a intentional and contemplative study of New York.