Go East, Young Man

Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York by Roz Chast. Bloomsbury, 2017. 978162040321.

This isn’t a guidebook or a history, warns cartoonist Roz Chast — it began as a booklet she made for her daughter when she left home to attend college in Manhattan. (Chast and her husband left Brooklyn, where she’d grown up and her parents lived (see Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?), in 1990.)

“I feel about Manhattan the way I feel about a book, a TV series, a movie, a play, an artist, a song, a food, a whatever that I love. I want to tell you about it so that maybe you will love it too…”

I just returned to Seattle from a trip to NYC with my wife, Silver, to meet my friend, Teo, and his wife, Krista, who were visiting from Finland. This book would have been great to read before the trip, but it’s perfect to read afterward, too, because it reminds me so much about the city. (In fact I just sent a copy to Teo and Krista.) Chast’s info on the layout of Manhatan will clarify my explanation of streets, avenues, and the east side vs west side. We walked everywhere (over 10 miles per day) and found lots of places like the shop that sells ribbon (Chast’s drawing is beautiful). I barely noticed the standpipes — Chast has photos of several, including one named Trixxxi — but I’m sure I will on my next trip. There are bits about the subway, stuff to do (including comics made from some of the paintings in the Met), parks, food, and more. Chast’s love for the city is both obvious and infectious. And even better, it makes me remember moments from our trip — Silver jumping at seeing a rat in Washington Square Park (I tried to convince her it was a leaf), our long wait at Russ & Daughters, and trekking to the Apple Store from Harlem.

Travels of a Brooklyn Boy

Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-the-Biggest Cities in the World by Todd Barry. Gallery Books, 2017. 9781501117428.

Sarah: I recently read The Not-Quite States of America, too, so this is my year for “Not Quite” books. Todd Barry is a working comedian, really well established. I wouldn’t say he can work wherever he wants, but he does mention several times in the book that he opened for Louie CK at Madison Square Garden.
G: Right. He’s not super famous, but he’s been in a lot of movies.
S: People know him.
G: You would recognize him instantly. But it feels like he’s a comedian’s comedian.
S: I can see that.
G: One of the things people kept saying to him that he interpreted as “this show may not go well” was, “I’m a little worried you’re too smart for this audience.”
S: Yes. And he might be a little to smart for any audience. This is about his year of going to secondary markets, as he calls them. Not the big towns, but the next ones down or the college towns, partly because he likes playing those venues but also because he likes finding indie coffee shops…
G: Coffee shops that make him feel like he’s still in Brooklyn.
S: Yes! Which is kind of hilarious. He lives in Brooklyn and tries to have the same experience everywhere. Continue reading “Travels of a Brooklyn Boy”

Wait, where’d I leave my heart?

Meanwhile in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words by Wendy MacNaughton. Chronicle Books, 2014. 9781452113890.

Gene: This is Meanwhile in San Francisco: A City in Its Own Words.
Sarah: Oh, the cover’s cool.
G: I’ve had this book for years — I love it. (There’s one like it on New York as well that’s called Hello New York.) This is by Wendy MacNaughton. She wandered around San Francisco, drawing the city. It reminded me of a book of drawings we both liked, Tokyo on Foot. MacNaughton records people’s own words, sometimes by overhearing them, sometimes by talking to them. It’s very fun. There’s a giant fold-out map inside the dust jacket…
S: …that show San Francisco at the center of the solar system.
G: Floating around it are Oakland, New York, LA and the Sun. That’s how San Francisco sees the universe. Isn’t that brilliant?
S: Yes.
G: Here’s the table of contents, done as a map, with arrows pointing to different areas of the city (with corresponding page numbers).
Here are some pages about the MUNI. They don’t seem to be watercolors, they look more like marker drawings?
S: The MUNI driver says, “We get paid about $30/hr. $1 to drive, $29 to deal with people.” That’s like a thing I used to have hanging over my desk.
G: The librarian version of that?
Continue reading “Wait, where’d I leave my heart?”

Finding Your Way, Finding Your Way Home

You & a Bike & a Road by Eleanor Davis. Koyama Press, 2017. 9781927668405.

Eleanor Davis started biking from her parents’ home in Tucson back to her home in Athens, Georgia, carrying only a tent, a sleeping bag, her clothes, and enough food to get to her next stop. When people asked her why she was doing this, she told them either, “My husband & I want a baby, so I figure I either do this now or wait 20 years.” or “My dad built this bike & I hate boxing and shipping bikes so I decided to just ride it home!” She didn’t tell them that she was having trouble with not wanting to be alive, but that she felt good when she was bicycling — that was true, too. She recorded her journey in black and white pencil drawings as she traveled.

Throughout the trip she pushed her body, biking up to 50 miles a day even though her knees really hurt. (She iced them when she could.) She saw amazing natural beauty, passing through farmland, desert, cities, and ghost towns. She explored a lot of our border with Mexico and witnessed the harsh treatment of people trying to cross it. She biked her way through both depression and euphoria. All along her journey she met kind people who fed her and inspired her to keep going. (The people she met in Alpine, Texas, were particularly amazing.) As she said early on in her trip, “I’ll push myself really hard until I get very strong. This has always been my only plan.”

House In Middle of Street: Why?

The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the Meaning of the World’s Strangest Syndromes By Frank Bures. Melville House, 2016. 9781612193724.

In multiple regions of the world, there is a medical syndrome in which men, and sometimes even large groups of men, go into a panic because they believe their penises are disappearing either by shrinking or being pulled inside their bodies. As traumatic as that would be on its own, in some places it’s understood that if the penis disappears fully, the victim will die. People blamed for causing the disappearance by magical means are assaulted and sometimes killed. When the stories appear in the news, they’re reported as regional oddities or some strange resurgence of primitive beliefs. Bures takes it much more seriously. He went on a multi-continent search to interview people who had suffered this malady and the doctors who had treated them. As he tells the story of his journey, he shares his extensive research into medical problems that are limited to certain cultures or countries.

While the doctors he interviewed about penis theft often blamed the syndrome on lack of education and superstition, Bures found research on similar culturally influenced medical problems for almost every country. High levels of education and a scientific viewpoint didn’t seem to prevent them. There is a heart problem that is only diagnosed in Germany, a liver problem that is only diagnosed in France, and a foot problem that only occurs in England. There are conditions that only occur in some places: anorexia is only diagnosed in cultures that value thinness. Syndromes can spread through cultural contact, like the high rates of lower back pain that spread from West Germany to East Germany after reunification. Others rise and fall over time with no change in their supposed physical cause, like carpal tunnel syndrome. These are cultural syndromes: every society has a culture and every culture has its syndromes.

Bures makes it clear that no one is faking or making it up: people who have these illnesses really do suffer, but the biomechanical model of illness can’t fully explain what is happening and why. Your medical diagnosis shouldn’t change when you cross a border, but it happens: Lynn Payer, an editor and medical correspondent for The New York Times got wildly different advice from her doctors when she moved to France. In her book Medicine and Culture (quoted by Bures on p. 85) she wrote that “all one must do to acquire a disease is to enter a country where that disease is recognized — leaving the country will either cure the malady, or turn it into something else.” Incidence rates of some illnesses increase based on how long an immigrant group has been in their new home: exposure to a new culture becomes a risk factor for disease.

Bures’ research is fascinating (don’t miss the chapter endnotes, they contain astonishing stories as well), and he writes in a sympathetic and engaging voice. He’s investigating the cultural sea each of us exists in and can’t recognize. Culture isn’t just native dress and food, it’s how we understand and experience reality.

When You’re Too Cheap to Get Zagat’s From the Library

Not One Shrine: Two Food Writers Devour Tokyo by Becky Selengut and Matthew Amster-Burton, illustrated by Denise Sakaki. CreateSpace, 2016. 9781532858604.

notoneshrineTwo funny, food-obsessed friends plan a week in Tokyo. They won’t visit any museums, historical landmarks, or shrines. They are going there to eat.

Becky and Matthew munch on hand-pulled candy and freshly killed eel, visit a robot restaurant, and drink booze served with massive, hand-carved ice spheres. It’s more of a travelogue than a guidebook, but they do provide an online list of everywhere they ate, with tips on vocabulary and getting around in an appendix.

I loved their back-and-forth banter as they alternated stories of where they went. I laughed out loud at their observations more than once.* This is a fun book even if you don’t plan to visit Japan, but totally necessary if you do: you’ve got to eat, so it might as well be amazing.

*Matthew: “The only time I ever use an umbrella is in Japan, because Seattleites consider unfurling an umbrella the equivalent of raising a flag that says BOO HOO I’M MELTING.”