Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Jonathan Lethem, Sunnyside Gardens, Communists, and More. Did I Mention that Lethem is at Boswell on Monday, June 30, 7 pm?

Story Number One:
One of the tales my mom has been known to tell is the one about how when my parents moved into their house in Bayside (in Queens), several of the neighbors didn't take to them. And then a whisper: "They were communists." And you would think that was my mother writing them off. But actually, though my mother really didn't have strong political opinions, the key here is that there was this club, and it didn't matter what my mother felt, they wouldn't let her in. At the time, my dad's family owned a business which was strike one. And strike two is that they were all intellectuals and my mom had not gone to college. The only thing my oldest sister can say on the subject is that they did like their folk songs. Who cares, right? So why does my mother still bring it up on occasion?

Story Number Two:
It's the week of Book Expo, the annual publishing convention in New York and I had just enough time to do something off the schedule. Since I was reading Jonathan Lethem's novel, Dissident Gardens, and we were staying at the Grand Hyatt, on the number 7 line, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to hop on the train and take a walk.

Sunnyside Gardens was a bit of a mystery to me growing up, way on the other side of the borough. Once in my twenties, when I developed an interest in urban planning, it reared its head as one of the legendary planned communities of the 20th century. Basically a collection of low-slung garden apartments, which are sort of similar to row houses, though they often are connected two-flats, instead of single families, most of the homes back up to public space.

Queens was filled with garden apartment communities but Sunnyside was just a little denser, and the public spaces were definitely more lush. Plus the later communities had way more space allocated to drives and garages, and put the public land in front of the homes, making them more like walking cul de sacs. One of the signifcant details of Sunnyside Gardens is that most of the homes themselves front the street, with very small yards. There's a street named after Lewis Mumford!

The only problem is that the development is that over the years, the homes were not part of a centralized development company, and modifications were rampant. Some people cemented their front yards. Others turned them into parking pods. The remodels are all over the place. Lots of folks put cinder blocks in their 3rd floor dormer windows. And most of all, much of the public space became gated off.

Now there is historical designation to the district, and new modifications are said need approval. I'm sure for many that's great, while other folks fume. But while Sunnyside Gardens has been surprisingly stable over the past 100 years, when other neighborhoods in Queens deteriorated, now I assume the problems are more about development pressure, being only five or so stops from Manhattan.

Story Number Three:
So back to the reason I took my walk, Jonathan Lethem's latest novel, Dissident Gardens. Apparently the story was inspired my one of Lethem's grandmothers, who once lived in the neighborhood.

Jonathan Lethem (photo credit John Lucas) is one of those writers whose been in my consciousness for a long time. I always worked with at least someone who was obsessed with his books, and after his breakout, Motherless Brooklyn, often several. I still recall traveling to an earlier Book Expo with Mary, my co-worker, who was engrossed by The Fortress of Solitude on her trip in. I can't actually recall what I've read on these trips, but they do take on a sort of gravitas, and Jason recently reminded me I read the advance copy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on one of them. He was a bit surprised. So you could say that my decision to read Dissident Gardens on my way to BEA was an homage to that earlier trip.

I decided to read Dissident Gardens because Mr. Lethem is visiting Milwaukee for his paperback tour in June. To be exact, the event is scheduled for Monday, June 30, 7 pm, what we call Summerfest Break day. They've started closing on this Monday for the last few years, since attendance on that day is always the weakest. It comes halfway through the festival, and gives them a chance to do some cleaning.

If you know me, you'd probably think Dissident Gardens would be a slam dunk read for me, and in retrospect, you would be right. It's about Queens, where grew up. It's populated with a lot of Jews, and I like subcultures in general and Jewish stuff in particular. There's a bookish gay kid in it, and while I'm not a 300 pound dreadlocked academic, I certainly had some identification.

Oh, regret. Why can't I just love a book? Do I have to finish it and think, why didn't I read it last year?

Coincidentally I had the same sort of regret walking through Sunnyside. Oh, if I'd only known about this earlier! Would I have lived here instead of wherever I wound up living that in part drove me to Milwaukee? Would my life be different? Would I want my life different?

There's a lot of regret in Dissident Gardens as well. Just about every character makes a bad choice if not several. One minor one might be to not get high before you go on a game show. A more serious one might not to play with the Irish mob or assume that the counter-terrorists in Nicaragua can be swayed by passive resistance.Perhaps you might not want to invest your life in apologizing for Germany by researching atrocities committed by Nazis during the war. Or perhaps you'd be like Ruth and have no regrets forever, sublimating your anger into becoming an activist on the board of the Queensboro Public Library.

Here's my rec for Dissident Gardens. Drummed out of the communist party for sleeping with a Black guy (and a police officer to boot), Rose Angrush Zimmer isn’t one to have anyone tell her what to do. The same can probably set for her lefty daughter Miriam Zimmer Gogan, which is why their relationship consists of a lot of ideological arguing. But this sprawling novel is more than just mothers and daughters; it’s a multi-generational, heartfelt Franzenesque story about identity and belonging, with an emphasis on rejecting said identity. Everything I love about a novel is here, from dysfunctional family politics to a sprawling subculture that is the political left, to the Queens setting, which of course is where I grew up. The result is a super-smart, funny, heartfelt, intensely discussable and often cantankerous novel."

Now that I've read Dissident Gardens and walked Sunnyside Gardens, I have no regrets at all. And I want to make sure you don't have any either. I'll make it simple. Dissident Gardens goes on sale in the paperback edition on June 3 and our event at Boswell is June 30.  In town for Summerfest? You might even enjoy Tommy Gogan's protest songs.


Coming up next, why were Queens homes riddled with these old-timey images of horse and carriage? This is a motif I have never come across in all my years in Milwaukee, but it was constant in my childhood and I started spotting it with regularity only a few blocks into my walk through the residential area. 

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