Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Best-loved books of 2008, #23: Favorite Place-Based Anthology

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Brooklyn Was Mine edited by by Valerie Steiker and Chris Knutsen (Riverhead)
(bonus: giving some love to the local!)

If there's anything your Book Nerd loves more than books and indie bookstores, it's my adopted home town of Brooklyn. So of course I snatched up this nonfiction anthology (which, as I mentioned here, benefits the organization Develop Don't Destroy, which opposes what I think is the worst idea in Brooklyn development history.) It could have been hit or miss -- as Colson Whitehead hilariously observed, there's a certain amount of hype around Brooklyn these days, especially as a literary Mecca.

Luckily, the mix of authors here offers views and voices beyond literary hipsterdom. The introduction by Pete Hamill offers several decades' perspective on the "sudden emergence" of Brooklyn, and opines that it will probaby remain itself whatever the condo developers or anti-gentrifiers attempt. Lara Vapnyar has an illuminating piece on the kitsch and apppeal of the neighborhood of Brighton Beach, which is "more Russian than Russia". And Brooklyn's poster boy Jonathan Lethem has an experimental multi-voiced rant on the frustrating and terrible nightmare of Brooklyn (followed by an explanation/apologia that puts it in perspective). Other authors write about the unexpected sense of neighborhood and community here, the experience of growing up here or moving from other parts of the country or the world, the geography, the history,the baseball, the race relations.

It's a fantastic collection, and cemented my love for the place -- not only my own experience of a wonderfully human-scale neighborhood, but the diversity of the place, and the fact that it can't be pinned down in a marketing slogan. The title alludes to the feeling that several of the essays get at: that one gets nostalgic and possessive about Brooklyn almost as soon as one encounters it. It's a bit laughable, sure, all of us staunchly loyal new converts, but Brooklyn is a place that gets a strong hold on people. I'm grateful for these writers for reminding me some of the reasons why.

And as borough president extraordinaire Marty Markowitz loves to remind us, one out of every four Americans has a relative from Brooklyn. So even if you're not from around here, bet you know someone who is who would love to read this book.