Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Books Wormed - Pete Hamill's "Downtown" and "Five Points" by Tyler Anbinder

Despite having so little time for anything else lately (like sleeping or eating) I've actually been doing quite a bit of reading. So much so that I finished two books in one day. Feeling quite virtuous, I then proceeded to get carried away, and read an entire issue of The New Yorker, a six-week-old copy of the Georgia Straight that I'd already read six weeks ago, and the instruction manual for a fire extinguisher.

Never let it be said that Daddy doesn't like him some readin'.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe first book I finished was actually brought to my attention by James Mullin, my book enabler, er, dealer. Seller! My book seller... When he handed me this one I snatched it away from him so fast there was a concern he might need a blood transfusion to help him recover from the paper cuts.

Ah, Manhattan... Or as I like to call it "The Holy Land". Mr. Hamill gets it just right, or at least I assume he does. I've never been to New York, but reading this one made me want to go even more, if such a thing is possible. By turns elegiac, puissant, and erudite, "Downtown" is everything a travel book should be, including written by someone who knows what they're talking about because they've lived there forever, without being as needlessly sesquipedalian as I can be.

I loved how he took well-known places, set them in a particular 20th century context, then finished them with some frisson of personal yet utterly relatable anecdote. More than a travel book, it's a time travel book. Not only did it make me want to go there, it made me want to go there 20 years before I was born.

Plus it reads like poetry crossed with chocolate. At 280 pages, I wanted it to go on and on...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketCovering roughly the same territory (geographically, at least), albeit 150 years previous, is the thick and juicy "Five Points" by Tyler Anbinder. I love nothing better than wrapping my hands around a great big history book, especially one which throbs with insight and pulses with life. Fortunately, I'm not one to sublimate, nor would I dream of exaggerating. Not in a million years.

Having previously read (and adored) "The Gangs of New York", Professor Anbinder's take is still thrilling, despite all the accuracy which, sadly, is lacking in Herbert Asbury's landmark 1928 publication. Twice as long as "Downtown" I was so enthralled by "Five Points" I read all the end notes and the index. Where Hamill's book is a rich, fulfilling dessert, Anbinder's is a steak.

To any student of conurbation, such as myself, New York City is the ultimate paradise on Earth. Although London is a close second - the cradle of the modern world, if you will - Manhattan is it's playpen, the nexus of everything, a gleaming pinnacle... I'd say more, but I'm afraid if my reverie rises above a certain Woody Allen-esque pitch Mr. Gagne dials up Bitch-Slap-o-Gram, and the next thing I know there's a knock at my door and a eight-foot tranny with a delivery for me.

So yeah, y'know, read 'em, don't read 'em... Whatever.
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