Another Tuesday, another Top Ten. Today, I am dreaming (as I often do) about New York City and my imaginary life there. Years ago, before I settled into teaching in small-town Louisiana and longed for something more exciting that a mid-afternoon nap, I dreamt of moving to New York City and making my mark. I was a musician, it seemed natural to want to pack my bags up and try to make it big in the land of Broadway. Sometimes I think I could have made it, but then I remember how much I love stability and security. I like health insurance benefits and a regular paycheck.
So instead, I’ve been reduced to dreaming about what my life would be like in NYC. In my current imagining, I’m a novelist living in a brownstone in Brooklyn. I write in the mornings on my terrace, and then I wander down to The Strand bookstore and get inspired by the thousands of great books there. I write in the Jefferson Market branch of the NYPL. I attend book events. It’s a lovely dream, really.
I went to NYC in January to perform, so I won’t be returning any time, soon. Instead, I’ll have to stick to reading about New York and experiencing it through book characters’ eyes.
10. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a true American classic. It’s a coming of age tale that’s heart wrenching and soul shattering. You know, that light stuff I like to read on a Sunday afternoon. It’s semi-autobiographical and that makes it even heavier, to me. Any time a book is based on a true story, I’m much more emotional about it.
I also love this book because it’s New York in a very different landscape. The face of The City has evolved a lot since it was published in the 1940s. It’s nice to have this piece of history conserving the past.
9. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I read Invisible Man at the behest of a student. She did her senior project over Invisible Man and had too many feels to not share them with somebody else.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book whenever I started reading it, but I powered through for Mary. It was heavy. It was dark. It said important things about race and the social climate of the 30s and 40s. It isn’t completely set in New York, but a good portion of the book takes place there. In the end, I enjoyed it and was glad I read it. It’s not a reading experience that caused me to feel inspired, as many reading experiences do. It just made me feel calm and reflective.
I love books about New York because they reveal so many faces about The City. I also apparently have a thing for New York pre-1950, because three other books on this list also fall in this category.
8. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
Honestly, this book didn’t make it on the list. Not because it’s bad, but because I really, really wanted to represent J.D. Salinger on this list because I love him so much. I prefer his short stories to Catcher in the Rye, though, so I went with Capote’s novella instead.
If you’ve not read Breakfast at Tiffany’s, go get it now. It’s a novella; it’s a short, very lovely reading experience. Holly Golightly is such a charming beast of a human being. She’s so raw and not at all the typical woman in literature, and it’s so refreshing. She’s crude and unrefined and has a complex and complicated story. And there’s something so masterful about the way Capote has written a story in which the narrator and protagonist is not actually the main character of the story.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s also has the distinct honor of having my favorite literary quote, ever.
“They’ve had the old clap–yo‘-hands so many times it amounts to applause.”
7. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Surely, at this point, you’ve read this book. Or seen the movie. Or been exposed to it at some point. If not, you should go read it. It’s lovely. It’s complex. It’s a sweet little book about a sweet little boy.
6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
You can’t talk about books set in New York without talking about The Great Gatsby. It’s iconic. It’s quintessential. And it’s perfect. Everything matters. Every color. Look. I know this book is overtaught in public schools. But I don’t care. I love it. It’s perfect and precious and I have the fondest memories of reading it in high school.
If you want a really nice reading experience, the audiobook is performed by Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s excellent.
5. The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand
Holly Chase is a delightful read. I’ve reviewed it here, already. It was my first review for Plucky.
Holly Chase starts off in LA, but quickly transitions to NYC, where the bulk of the story takes place. And, for those of you keeping track, this book is set in modern-day New York City, so that’ll definitely have an effect on your mental picture of New York. (Will it? Maybe? It does for me, but maybe I’m alone.)
Holly Chase is a sweet read at Christmastime and makes a good Christmas Carol substitute.
4. James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Okay, seriously? Did Roald Dahl every do anything poorly? I loved James and the Giant Peach. I loved the Tim Burton film adaptation.
Let’s face it. I kind of love all things Roald Dahl. (Except for whoever made beer from his swabbed writing chair. I’ll pass on that.)
While James and the Giant Peach goes through several settings, the eventual goal and endpoint is New York City. I love this adventure. I lost this story. I love the hope and the magic and the sparkle that Roald Dahl writes with. It’s wonderful. It’s enviable.
3. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
This book has been raved about by podcasters and book reviewers and Oprah. And they’re all right. It’s exactly as good as they all say it is. Everything about this book is beautiful. Everything about this book is real.
Behold the Dreamers is set in 2007 just before the stock market crash. It seems crazy to me that we are far enough out from that event that there is fiction about it. I was a freshman in college; it doesn’t seem like it could possibly have been that long ago. Jende is a Cameroonian immigrant to America living in Harlem. He works hard to provide a better life for his wife, Neni, and son. As the book opens, he is hired to be a personal driver for a very wealthy and powerful executive at an invest firm. Jende is a hard worker and very proud of his work. He takes pride in supporting his family and helping Neni through school.
Just as they’re finding comfort in their lives in Harlem, the stock market crashes and their world is throw into turmoil. It’s such a wonderful story about the immigrant experience in America. Imbolo Mbue is an immigrant from Cameroon, and it’s wonderful to have a firsthand view of the American dream from an immigrant. It’s an important and timely book. And it’s lovely.
2. The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
The Sun is Also a Star is also a story about immigration and the American Dream. Using two narrators in alternating chapters, The Sun is Also a Star tells the story of Natasha and Daniel. Natasha is a science-minded, no nonsense kind of girl whose family is on the brink of deportation. When the book opens, she is working to make sure that she doesn’t get deported along with her family.
Daniel, on the other hand, is the son (or maybe grandson) or immigrants. Their family owns a business and he is expected to live up to his parents’ high expectations. He’s a dreamer with an insatiable love of poetry. He’s essentially me, if I were a hot book character and not a 30-year-old nerd.
Their paths cross and for one day, Natasha and Daniel fall have the most beautiful day together. But it’s only for one day.
I love compressed timeline. I love books that take place in the span of a few hours or a few days. (Don’t look to my writing for that. I need an entire school year and 180,000 words to tell a story.) I was charmed immediately by the characters and their stories. And I was charmed by the way Yoon spun together not just Natasha and Daniel’s lives, but so many other characters. It’s a subtle reminder that our actions pull strings we’ll never see. We effect people in ways we’ll never know.
1. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
So, Rules of Civility is my Swiss Army book recommendation. I recommend it to any reader for any situation for any time in their lives.
In classic Plucky fashion, it is set in New York City in the 30s and 40s. The book opens in 1937 and focus on my a young girl with my favorite book name, ever, Katey Kontent. Katey is a Russian immigrant (seriously, I didn’t plan this, it just happened) who finds herself falling in with the social elite of Manhattan after meeting Tinker Grey. This chance meeting propels Katey and her best friend through a year of amazing opportunities and events.
The thing about this book is Katey Kontent is the most true-to-herself character I’ve ever read. She is virtuous and honest and good. She knows exactly who she is and she doesn’t allow herself to be swayed by the money or the glamor that she finds herself surrounded by. Katey discovers that almost nobody is who they seem to be in this new world. She finds that there are skeletons in everybody’s closet, but she doesn’t allow that to shake her. She is unflappable and honorable.
I’ve never loved a character as much as I love Katey Kontent. She’s a literary breath of fresh air.
Have I missed your favorite book set in the land where dreams come true? Tell me about it. I want to know everything about it. Maybe I haven’t read it, yet.
The Plucky Reader