Part 1: Astoria, Queens
Now that I don't have any immediate family that lives in New York City (there are some cousins in the suburbs), I don't get to visit as much as I once did. So one of the nice things about Book Expo being in New York is that I do get that visit to my approximate home. Not the exact home, mind you; our house was torn down when my mom moved out, replaced by a semi-detached two family, which if you are good at math and real estate lingo, is four families.
I have mentioned at one time that we didn't have a childhood bookstore. There was a Womrath's in Fresh Meadows, which closed when the Bloomingdale's became a Kmart, and later on, there was a Waldernbooks in Old Bayside, which is what residents on the southern edges of the neighborhood called the strip along Bell Boulevard, east of Northern Boulevard. And now I believe that the only Barnes and Noble that's going to be left in Queens County once they close the Forest Hills branch will be in Bay Terrace, a shopping center just east of there.
There well may have been independent bookstores in various Queens neighborhoods at one time; it's hard to believe that Forest Hills couldn't have supported one. But right now, the indie of choice for Queensians (I grew up there, so I can make up the residential name, I guess) is Astoria Bookshop. Read the New York Daily News article about Lexi Beach and Connie Rourke's endeavor.
I should note that my father never had an issue driving and parking in Astoria if it meant eating at one fo his favorite restaurants, Uncle George's Greek Tavern. Alas, this fabled eater closed just after Astoria Book Shop opened, and I suppose parking was not as difficult twenty years ago.
But why wait two years to sample ABS's wares? Well of course there was an author involved. Just like I spent my time walking around Sunnyside, to get in the mood for Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens, this year I wanted to get all Queensed up in advance of our event with Matthew Thomas, who wrote We Are Not Ourselves, one of the best reviewed novels of 2014 (more on that later), now in paperback.
My original idea was to start in Elmhurst, at an apartment I lived in for two years, some thirty years ago, on Broadway, and walk all the way down Broadway, crossing the length of Woodside, and landing in Astoria, but it turned out that what with Book Expo, this was too ambitious an agenda. At that time, my neighborhood had a lot in common with Woodside. It had once been heavily Irish, and was transitioning to what was said to be one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York, and perhaps even the United States.
My building itself was still heavily Irish, perhaps in part due to the fact that we had an Irish super (or building manager, as Milwaukeeans would call him). He and his large family and his dogs had a predisposition to renting to many other large Irish families with dogs. I'm not sure how I got in, though my small studio with a view of the Elmhurst gas tanks (now dismantled) through my security gates might not have been the most rentable space, plus I paid a lot of "key money." A lot for me, anyway.
Broadway and Steinway Streets are great for old-fashioned strolling, shopping, and people watching. The shops are a combination of old school entrepreneurial bargain fashion stores, old school regional chains (like Boltons and my favorite, Easy Pickins, which was a heavy advertiser on pop radio in the 1980s), mall type shops, and lots and lots of restaurants. We wound up eating at The Bao Shoppe, and had delicious food truck style bao, with pork belly, tofu, and fried Pollock. And bubble tea of course!
Part II: Woodside (next to Astoria) is the Setting for We Are Not Ourselves.
So a little more about Matthew Thomas! We are Not Ourselves is about three generations of an Irish family through the eyes of Eileen Tumulty. Her life with her husband takes a turn when he develops early onset Alzheimers. But as Maggie Scarf writes in The New York Times Book Review writes that the story isn't ultimately depressing: "Written in calm, polished prose, following one family as its members journey through the decades in an American landscape that is itself in flux, it’s a long, gorgeous epic, full of love and life and caring. It’s even funny, in places — and it’s one of the best novels you’ll read this year.
David L. Ulin writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Thomas, who grew up in Queens, clearly understands his territory; at times, We Are Not Ourselves reads like a family history in its evocation of New York's outer boroughs and second-tier suburbia of the 1980s, with their mix of immigrants and culture clash. He is unafraid to portray this in all its complexity, most acutely when it comes to Eileen, who recoils at the changing face of her community."
And the authors who've weighed in on We Are Not Ourselves are among our favorites. Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, called it "a powerfully moving book, and the figure of Eileen Leary--mother, wife, daughter, lover, nurse, caretaker, whiskey drinker, upwardly mobile dreamer, retrenched protector of values--is a real addition to our literature." And Joshua Ferris, author of To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, wrote "Matthew Thomas has written a masterwork on both, as well as an anatomy of the American middle class in the 20th Century. It's all here: how we live, how we love, how we die, how we carry on. And Thomas does it with the epic sweep and small pleasures of the very best fiction. It's humbling and heartening to read a book this good." And Jim Shepard, who is coming to Boswell on June 18 for his masterful new novel, The Book of Aron (mark your calendar) offered that "We are Not Ourselves is wonderful on the position of the striving classes and our longings on behalf of our families, and on how we deal with unexpected disaster. It's as fiercely passionate and big-hearted and memorable as Eileen, its 'I'm-holding-this-family-together-with-my-two-hands" protagonist.'"
Yes, it appears that I only count authors who have appeared at Boswell or are appearing in the future. It's just coincidence, I assure you.
The New York Times: "Mr. Thomas’s narrow scope (despite a highly eventful story) and bull’s-eye instincts into his Irish characters’ fear, courage and bluster bring to mind the much more compressed style of Alice McDermott. (According to this book’s acknowledgments, she has been one of his teachers. If he wasn’t an A student then, he is now.) So this novel includes a brief but sharply revealing episode set in 1970, with Eileen coaxing Ed into Manhattan from Queens, where they still live, to look at Lord & Taylor’s Christmas windows. It’s cold and slippery, hard for Eileen to walk in high heels, but Ed refuses to park near the store. And he snows all over her parade, denouncing the stupidity of consumer excess at Christmastime. The episode does not loom large in Eileen’s memory. But as the spouses’ luck seesaws over time, it’s clear that she’s not about to let Ed have the upper hand forever."
So yes, Alice McDermott keeps coming to mind as I talk about Thomas's book, as does Colm Toíbín's Brooklyn. And so of course I'm hoping that folks who like Irish and Irish American fiction will come to our event on Monday. And of course book clubs--the in-store lit group is discussing the book on Tuesday, July 7 (bumped from Monday, as I'm working at our Daniel Silva co-sponsored event at the JCC on July 6).
PART III: Queens writers.
So back to the Astoria Bookshop. I asked Lexi how We Are Not Ourselves was doing at the store and of course it's been a huge success. And then, since The New York Post called the book the first great literary novel of Queens, I asked if this was in fact the case. And of course the growth of the literary community in Queens has actually led to an explosion of books about the borough, and so I asked her for a list.
a. Family Life, by Akhil Sharma. This novel had tremendous reviews and very good sales when it came out last year, but obviously I was only half paying attention or I would have caught the Queens setting of some of the stories.
b. Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem. Already discussed!
c. High as the Horses Bridles, by Scott Cheshire. It's about an evangelical boy preacher at a Queens church who loses his faith after a series of tragedies.
d. The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte. An Astoria man has to get funds from a college friend for the mediocre school where he is a development officer. The paperback is a lot Queensier than the hardcover, featuring the 1964 World's Fair Unisphere.
e. Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, by Meg Medina. A kids' book about bullied teen who learns how to survive life in a tough Queens school. Oy, bullies.
f. Corona, by Bushra Rehman. A Pakistani woman growing up in Corona is excommunicated from her tight Muslim community and begins a series of travels. Karen Russell called it "a stunning debut."
g. The Devil in Silver, by Victor LaValle. A Jason pick! Lexi reminded me that the mental hospital in this classic horror novel is based on Creedmoor, across the street from where my friends and I played tennis.
Some but not all Alice McDermott novels are set in Queens. Sometimes the characters jump straight from Brooklyn to Long Island. Thomas's characters jump from Queens to Bronxville, in Westchester County.
And of course there are many writers who grew up or now live in Queens, like Bill Cheng, though Southern Cross the Dog is most definitely set in Mississippi. Also a shout out should be reserved for Megan Abbott, one of Lexy's favorite writers, who lives in Forest Hills. Abbott apparently has some Milwaukee connection too.
The Fever is just out in paperback.
Part IV: What to Serve at a Matthew Thomas Event, That Celebrates Queens
My concern is that my memories of New York are more focused on Jewish cultural things as opposed to Irish ones. Can I think back to all my lunches at McAnn's Bar (there were like 50 of them in mid-town), back before there were all these fancy food stalls and fast casual places with healthy burgers, salads, tacos, and my newest favorite, gourmet rice balls (Arancini Brothers)?
The corn muffin. One of the strangest things to me about New York is the common acceptance of corn muffins and the lack of awareness that nobody else has these things. Yes, it is basically corn bread in a muffin tin. Another odd thing about New York muffins is that it is common habit to toast them. If I tried to toast a muffin in the Midwest, I'd be laughed out of whatever coffee bar or bakery I was in.
The egg cream! Pretty easy, especially as there are no eggs involved, and no cream either, at least in some recipes. It's basically milk, seltzer, and chocolate syrup. I would say you'd want Fox's U-Bet or Bosco, but honestly, when in Milwaukee, you probably have a choice of Hersheys and Smuckers. If you ever go to Black Shack Burgers in New York, you can get a close equivalent, a fountain chocolate soda, branded Bosco no less, light years better than that Diet Canfield's stuff that was being touted by Oprah many years ago.
We're going with egg creams. You'll wonder why chocolate soda isn't ubiquitous.
Part V: Conclusion
a. Go to Astoria Book Shop next time you're in New York. It's on the N line. Even a Wisconsinite would feel at home; there's a staff rec for Shotgun Lovesongs.
b. Read a book set in Queens
c. Come to our event with Matthew Thomas on Monday, June 8, 7 pm, at Boswell. If it's after June 8, come to a different event. We have a lot of 'em. Check out our upcoming events page.
What to Read Next — Winter 2017
1 day ago