History and Family Saga
If you want to get a good smattering of New York's history under your belt without having to endure a dry read, may I suggest Edward Rutherford's New York. It is a chunky volume (981 pages) that covers the 1600's through to 2001. New York is a fantastic read (think Gone with the Windish) that follows four decades of the Master Family; from the first settler to modern day. Each generation's ambitions and failures, joys and sorrows unfold against the backdrop of historic battles, controversies, immigration, financial crises, architectural, transportation and business development.
I don't think I have ever enjoyed a better history lesson and have ordered Paris, by the same author to review and refresh my cultural and political history of that amazing city.
New York 1970's cool
If I could have been in New York City in the seventies, I would have been able to go to CBGB's or Max's Kansas City to watch Blondie, The Ramones or the Talking Heads perform. I could have attended house parties where I'd bump into the likes of Basquiat and Warhol, Hockney and Schnabel. Perhaps I would have eavesdropped on some great conversations by William Burroughs or Patti Smith. Of course, there also would have been garbage everywhere, dives, cockroach infested low rent apartments, soaring crime, sex drugs and rock n' roll accompanying Gerald Ford's (supposed) wish for New York to Drop Dead. Unfortunately I wasn't there, but got to go, vicariously, through the memoir, 20th Century Boy, by painter Duncan Hannah. Hannah arrived in New York in 1971 as a young artist who wanted to try everything the city had to offer and did. This book covers the years 1971-81 as he parties, paints and tries to become the man he wants to be.
I especially loved his reading lists, record lists and movie lists which I dipped into for my own wish lists.
The original proto-punk
Follow the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven around Greenwich Village, already an epicenter of counterculture at the turn of the the 20th century. This original and mad figure lived and endured, created and endured until she could endure no more: a poet, artist, sexual libertine, the personification of alternative fashion, a burlesque performer and a deeply sensitive soul. She modelled for Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. Elsa also experienced abuse, mental illness, ridicule and loneliness and as such, although the book is about an alternative interesting bohemian lifestyle it is also a raw, harsh and sad story.
For me, it illustrates what you face and what it means if you are "the wrong kind of different".
A girl's coming of age
Set in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn, a young girl describes life as she sees it, interprets it. It is the immigrant story of deprivation, struggle, ugliness and survival. The protagonist, Francie grows up in these surroundings and has to make sense of relationships, growing pains and life in general. And through the hardships there is family and even good times. It is one of those books like A Diary of Anne Frank or Anne of Green Gables that every young person (and if missed during youth) every adult should read. Anna Quindlen's statement in the Forward is funnily enough true, "a book in which, no matter our backgrounds, we recognize ourselves."
I know I did.