A Mango-Shaped Space

Young adult books always prove to be the most thought-provoking literature.

There are so many conditions, gifts and simple states of being in the world that when you are introduced to one that is completely unfamiliar to you, it’s both amazing and not. You sort of already expect there to be many more types of people in the world than you already know about—but when you discover something new, you’re still kind of in awe, right?

In the case of A Mango-Shaped Space, the condition is known as synesthesia. People with synesthesia often associate certain senses with numbers, sounds, letters and other things. The lead character in the book, Mia, sees colors and shapes for letters, numbers, and sounds, for example. Others might smell a certain scent when they hear some words, or they might experience a taste in their mouths.

People with synesthesia can experience challenges with many things in life—such as math skills, which were difficult for young Mia in the book due to their various colors—but the condition can also result in a more vivid life experience altogether. Though some medications can help “mask” symptoms—and symptoms can sometimes dilute or disappear during severe stress or trauma to return again later—most people with synesthesia say they would rather have it than not.

The book itself is very straight-forward and accessible to tweens and teens; I think most kids over eight could enjoy and understand the book. Indeed, I wonder if part of the reason why it was written was to provide something for young children who have this condition to have something to relate to and know they are not alone. I can’t imagine what it would be like to experience life in a completely different way from others and for people to call you crazy or not believe you when, in fact, what you are experiencing affects many more people—and is documented for proof.

I really enjoyed Mia’s story and would recommend such a book to any children’s book club or reading program. There’s no violence—though there are a couple of mature subject matters, such as youth kissing, death and pet death; I don’t think these warrant the big bad parental bans anywhere, but I guess you never know!—and I think the material is both poignant and appropriate, as well as moving and interesting. Kids will enjoy the book as they learn more about people around the world, family, and friendship.


Malone Street Wreck: Shocking and Troubling History

I first found out about the Malbone Street Wreck when I got lost coming home from the post office closest to my house. It wasn't exactly that I was lost, but that I got confused when I turned the corner. I was supposed to be on Empire Boulevard, a huge (in some places five-lane) street running through my Prospect Gardens neighborhood. Instead, on one little tiny spot, with one little tiny sign, Empire Boulevard was Malbone Street.I got home, looked it up, and found out about the Malbone Street Wreck, a big huge disaster of a subway derailment into a side of a tunnel. Malbone Street, you see, was the first name of the street now called Empire Boulevard. City officials changed it in 1918 after the street came synonymous with public transit disasters. Whether they were trying to improve the image of public transit or improve the image of Malbone Street isn't clear. What is clear is how it made the wreck become more easily forgotten; I surveyed a dozen people who had lived in my neighborhood for decades, a neighborhood at the epicenter of both the wreck and the recovery, yet no one knew about it.

I was so pleased (if one can say one is pleased about anything concerning a disaster) to find this book which, while not without its controversies, was certainly illuminating. The Malbone Street wreck killed at least 93 people and may have killed as many as 101, the number is not clear because not all the bodies, well bits of bodies could be recovered from the wreckage.



A Novel of Hope and Sorrow in New York

You really have to admire Sapphire for her smarts in getting the movie based on her novel Push to be called called Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. It's not really clear what led to this slightly verbose title, but it's very well deserved and I can't imagine it was an easy fight. I'm sure the film-indrustry executives that handled the negotiations couldn't have been thrilled about complicating their simple name “Precious” But the book Push was not simple, even if it was an almost iconic New York story.Of course, by now everyone has seen the movie; it won tons of prizes and Monique was amazing in it it launched the career of Gabourey Sidbe as well. And we got see Mariah Carey all non-glam and really actually non kidding acting, so all that was pretty exciting.

What people are going to miss if they only see the movie (although the movie certainly does follow the storyline of the novel very closely) is one of the best use of unusual literary conventions I've seen. The book is written in first person by the title character, and as the title character's writing improves, the book becomes more complex and also more easy to read.

The beginning part of Push/Precious is very difficult to read both because of the extremely difficult subject matter and because Precious can barely write. But as she works with her teacher Miss Rain (who figures even more prominently in the book) she is able to write more clearly and put together sentences in a way that the average reader will understand. As Precious' writing improves, so does her ability to communicate her world. To be, that's one of the strongest points of the book, and why everyone who sees the movie should definitely follow up with a trip to the library to get the original book.

The Works

I don't know if The Works: Anatomy of A City is for everyone but it is for anyone who has the slightest inclination to be an infrastructure nerd, or for that matter any New Yorker who has wondered “hey now how does that work?”The Works is, perhaps not surprisingly, about how public works in large cities work, as demonstrated by the city of New York. The book is divided up into five section; moving people, moving freight, power, communications, keeping it clean and the future.

Although I found all the sections fascinating, some were more intriguing than others. So much has been written about the history of the New York City subway system that there was little in the public transit part of the moving people chapter that interested me or was completely new. The information about car commuters; however, was almost all brand new, since this isn't nearly as sexy a subject. I wish they'd included more information about the ferry system though. Most non New Yorkers only know about the Staten Island Ferry and think that it crashes all the time since when it does crash, it makes big huge news.

The communications section was a bit outdated, since most people I know in New York do not rely on their landline for communication at all, if they even have a landline. Although older people are disportionately more likely to have a land line, it's still often a secondary form of communication; if the whole land line communication system broke down, most New Yorkers would have to go to their offices before they even noticed.

Most interesting to me was the keeping it clean section: more about New York's sewage and garbage than you ever needed to know! Just the same, interesting and important stuff.

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

saw New York that way Toby Young sees New York in How to Lose Friends and Alienate People I absolutely could not live here. Luckily, I either live in a different New York, or interact with different types of New Yorkers, or I am not as much of a jerk as Toby Young. Most likely all three are true.One of the most fascinating things about How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is that the author has no idea how ironic his title is. For starters, one would expect a book with such a completely self deprecating name to be written by someone who has a modicum and humility and understanding of his privilege. But Young, a straight white guy in a man's world (whether he believes it or not) is so busy feeling sorry for himself for not being well-haired and handsome and, I guess, taller, all he can do is find fault with the people around him. And this is the real reason you feel alienated and don't want to be his friend. Not because the behavior he describes is really so bad, although it is, but that he doesn't even realize that it's straight white male privildge that keeps him from any meaningful consequences of his behavior.

Take, for example, the fact that he gets a job at Vanity Fair. At first I wrote “writing at Vanity Fair” and had to delete it. The man never seems to write anything for the magazine. All he seems to do is get drunk and be offensive and bitch about the women and the gay men at the office (his misogny taken to its logical conclusion I suppose) and get into fights with people who have less power than he does. But are there any real world consequences? Nope. For all of Young's complaining about the way Americans handle class, he doesn't seem to realize that his whole life is supported by the privilege he pretends not to have.

The Sky Isn't Visible From Here

Addiction memoirs set in New York City are not uncommon and they are certainly not a new phenomenon. The city that created the term “Bowery bum” isn't lean on addicts, addiction, or drugs, although you are much less likely to get offered heroin walking across 42 street now than you were 20 years ago.But among New York City addiction memoirs, Felicia Sullivan's The Sky Isn't Visible From Here is a real stand-out for a few reasons. First, Sullivan doesn't shy away from vivid descriptions not just what she did and what was done to her (the salient points in most addiction memoir, as far as I can tell) but also what she feeling at the time. This makes for a more dramatic, in some ways, addiction memoir. Sullivan wasn't sleepwalking through any of this, and so the reader doesn't get to either.

Second, while many addiction memoirs play the either slash or game with their own behavior and their behavior of their family of origin, Sullivan doesn't do this. Instead she weaves the story of her own mother's addictions (to cocaine, to the men in her life who continually abuse her and her daughter) with her own journey through an Ivy League college to a prestigious MBA program to creating a whole alternative identity for herself.

Finally, Sullivan doesn't just deliver high drama situations. She talks about taking to her mother to the emergency room after she's overdosed on cocaine, but she also talks about equally heartbreaking aspects of her childhood that are more relatable: breakups with best friends, moving, and the never ending quest to find somewhere she fits in.


Okay I'll admit it. I stole a poster of Tina Fey once. I actually stole it right out of the display in the newstand at Philadelphia's 30 Street Station. Fey was on the cover of Philadelphia Magazine, featured in a feature called “celebs on how our city shaped their lives and atty-toods (the Philly was of saying attitudes if that's not 100 percent clear). I walked up, to the display and acted like it was my job to remove the sign, rolled it up, put it under my arm, and walked off. It graces my wall to this day.That's how much I admire Tina Fey, so I wasn't destined to hate this book written by someone who took the Boys' Club at Saturday Night Live and –with writing and will power alone and maybe some kind of weird super-power—made it into someone New Yorkers actually loved again.

Still, I was impressed with the book in ways I hadn't expected to be. I really enjoyed Fey's candor and humor, especially her self deprecating humor. Well, it's not exactly self-deprecating at least not in the same (annoying) way Fey's Liz Lemon character is self-deprecating. She makes a lot of fun of The Indrustry in the book, and more importantly and more funnily (is that even a word) she makes fun of the way human nature interactions with the excesses of television and celebrity. She also takes on Lorne Michaels, which it seems like no one else wants to do; she's not critical but she's certain very candid, and it's charming. I also appreciated her tales of adolescense, which I've recommended to teenager friends who stayed in the awkward stage longer than they'd like. It's hope in a hardback. Well, and probably in a softcover as well eventually, but the alliteration isn't as satisfying.

NYC Subway Reading

One of my favorite New York subway pastimes is a little game I call (at least in my head) What Is That Person Reading. The rules are pretty simple. Basically, you just pay a lot of attention to what people are reading and, if possible, try and read a little bit of it over their shoulder. I've actually gotten great ideas for books I want to read from this. One time I even ended up checking the exact same book (not the same title, the same book, I could tell because the cover was stained) from the Brooklyn Library as someone I saw reading the book on the L train.Now to be sure, Kindle has made this process much harder. You can't really read over someone's should when they're reading on a Kindle. Now I'm not using this a complete excuse—it's not impossible-- you have to be at just the right angle in order to do any over the shoulder snooping and sometimes the maneuvering is awkward at best, confusing or even offensive at worst. Plus there is no way you can even guess what someone is reading before you get in that position (not being able to see a cover of any kind) and that can make for a lot of disappointment.

I can't tell you the number of times I've done so twisting and moving and twisting some more only to find out some commuter from Long Island is reading that same book about who you meet in heaven that everyone else has been reading for the last decade and that I tried to read but ended up hating. Although it does prevent that awkward situation wherein someone prepares to get off the train just at the good part and you have to ask them to miss their stop so you can finish reading.

Holidays on Ice

Hilarious NYC Tales

Sedaris' largely New York based Holidays on Ice may be one of the least returned Christmas gifts of all time, although I bet it's not uncommonly passed along (meaning shared, not necessarily regifted) because frankly, it's about the funniest thing to ever be written about the Winter Holiday Season.The Santaland Diaries is the anchor for this short book, and it's one of Sedaris' best works. And if you've ever been to the Herald Square Macy's during Christmastime, you won't doubt that a single word of it is true. The short story is a perfect mix of his almost weirdly fastidious attention to detail blended with his convincing misanthropic observations and the pre-existing bizarre way America retail turns the holiday shopping season into something almost religious in nature (the shopping that is, not the holiday) that make the whole thing jaw droppingly hilarious. Anyone who can read Sedaris' account of interaction with small children who are often accompanied by a strange brand of sticky, a troubling bit of stinky and more than their fair share of attitude without thinking “oh I am SO grateful for my job” probably works pre-sort at the local nursing home laundry facility.

I also really enjoyed the Christmas Letter parody, Seasons Greetings To Our Friends and Family, which is not as well known or popular of other Sedaris' short works, but it nevertheless hysterical in its unironic take on the very ironic “happier than thou” Christmas letter.

In a cute twist, the real More Successful Than Thou Christmas Letter is found in the form of the parody short story towards the back of the book, Christmas Means Giving.

Reading After Dark

In Law and Order SVU the character  Chester Lake has such severe insomnia that he roams the city every night, which gives him an excuse for knowing every nighttime sound of every borough. Why he doesn't just stay home and read a book like the rest of New York's insomaniac is never quite explained. However, if you're an insomniac New York reader who, like Chester Lake, just can't stay at home and be awake, there are some options for late night reading in the city that never sleeps.

The first option is the Tick Tock Diner. The Tick Tock Diner, located in the lobby of the New Yorker hotel and across the street from Penn Station, is not a fancy place. To say that it doesn't have great ambiance doesn't even begin to describe it, and the food is mediocre on a good night (definitely stick with breakfast or grilled cheese or another diner favorite). But the thing is Tick Tock is wide open 24 hours a day, so the people watching, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, is fantastic. What might you see? A troupe of drunken Belgian chefs or a team of drunken Peruvian rugby players. Or a whole heap of girls with big hair who were driven in by van from New Jersey. Regardless, if you order yourself a full meal and a cup of coffee, you can finish reading War and Peace here. Or maybe get some ideas for characters in a War and Peace of your own!

The second option for when reading replaces sleeping is Think Coffee. If you spend the wee, or nearly wee hours here, you can get jacked up on very tasty coffee and equally tasty grilled cheese sandwiches,. Three of the Manhattan locations for Think Coffee are open until midnight or later and their Mercer location stays open until midnight and has free wifi.