Apple of My Eye by Helene Hanff

It’s 10 degrees outside, and the temperature is still plunging, but Helene Hanff’s wondrous and adoring Apple of My Eye makes me want to go outside and start exploring every nook and cranny of New York City right now. If Hanff’s name sounds familiar, it is probably because she was also the author of 84, Charing Cross Road, also a great book.

Apple of My Eye may not persuade everyone to love Manhattan, but Hanff paints a beautiful, idiosyncratic portrait of my favorite city, warts and all, during a time when the New York ran out of money and the rest of the country, and Gerald Ford in particular, told New York to go to hell.

TIME OUT TO PLUG A NEW BOOKSTORE. Apple of My Eye took me by surprise as I was checking out Book Monster, a fine new used book store in Santa Monica. Like the best used books stores, Book Monster’s layout is completely inviting and encourages wonderfully random browsing. The travel books alone were worth the trip! Who knew I’d find my favorite book about New York while browsing in Santa Monica?

The premise of Apple of My Eye is that Hanff was commissioned to write the copy for a book of photographs of Manhattan. Determined to write a truly helpful book for tourists to the city, Hanff sets out with her long-time friend Patsy to explore Manhattan in the mid 1970’s, when New York City as a whole was in a state of financial collapse. This book is about their adventures. There was a lot more crime and many more things were falling apart in the 1970’s than is the case now. Acknowledging these issues, Hanff is determined to learn as much as possible about the parts of New York that she thinks tourists ought to see. Along the way, Hanff discovers and rediscovers an impressive array of New York neighborhoods, and is always ready to stop and really look at what is her around her.

Hanff lives on the Upper East Side, and her friend Patsy lives on the Upper West Side (my own personal nirvana). The two happily debate the relative merits of these two meccas — of course some of the traditional distinctions are waning as the Upper West Side keeps replacing old, charming and sometimes dilapidated brownstones with scores of fancy high rises. I might argue that the Upper West Side’s residents have changed far less than their architecture.

Helene Hanff and Patsy have obviously known each other for a long time, and together they come up with lists of places to see and neighborhoods to explore. Hanff and Patsy combine high degrees of inquisitiveness with a determination to see and appreciate as much as possible. Undaunted by getting lost (in a pre-IPhone era) and often getting very hungry, hot and footsore, they are determined to do a thorough job of checking out places tourists to New York should see. The two women are both very very opinionated about how New York should be — Hanff has been boycotting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in protest over its expansion into Central Park — and yet they can be persuaded to alter their initial perceptions. They really want to point tourists to good places and they are open to checking everything out.

New York keeps changing. In addition to the financial crisis of the 1970’s, Hanff writes about the World Trade Center just as the Twin Towers were opening, the newly opened sections of the Metropolitan Museum, the newly opened and very dusty Ellis Island and so much more. It was also a time when Central Park was considered pretty dangerous except on the weekends. Apple of My Eye made me want to explore everything. Now of course we have Google and Google Maps, so theoretically we shouldn’t get lost as often and we can look up the details on anything of interest. That’s a good thing in many ways, but I have to wonder about how many interesting things I may have missed because I was so focused on my phone that I neglected to look around.

For those of us who lived in Manhattan during the late 70’s and 80’s and have returned to live there only recently, Hanff’s book offers the best kind of nostalgia and also the recognition that change will continue to happen. Some change will be good, and some will suck. We can fight it or embrace it, but New York is going to keep on changing. And if we are confused or want to know more, we can look it up on line.

This is a great book and stands on its own, regardless of your interest in New York. Having said that, for me Manhattan has got to Beowulf of the best backdrops a book could ever possess.

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Channeling Captain Cook Across the Pacific

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Tony Horwitz has written a funny and yet sobering book about the explorations of Captain Cook.  Blue Latitudes — Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before combines historical research into Captain Cook and his voyages with a sort of drunken buddy attempt to trace Cook’s travels.  Horwitz, together with a frequently drunk old friend, tries to visit virtually everywhere Cook has gone.  It isn’t clear what Horwitz expected when he visited these places, but what he finds are a whole bunch of island nations and communities that haven’t fared very well since Cook’s visits.  Even in places such as Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii that have quite well, Cook is no hero.  It isn’t really surprising that Cook is frequently regarded more as a villain than an intrepid adventurer.  Horwitz does a great job of getting people to talk to him and learning to appreciate how they might react negatively to certain questions.  With far less humor, it seems that Cook also demonstrated good people skills from time to time.

The fact remains that for many people, being “found” by Captain Cook wasn’t necessarily a good thing.  There is ongoing, bitter resentment.  Of course, as some of the people Horwitz visits acknowledge, if it hadn’t been Captain Cook, surely some other Westerner would have come and ruined their paradise.

Although the premise of this book sounds fun and romantic, the reality is often cynical populations who haven’t fared very well.  The book has a lot of strengths  —  I learned an almost numbing amount about Captain Cook, the author is a good and educable listener, and some of the author’s sailing in bad weather adventures are tremendously exciting and absolutely terrifying.  The Aleutian experience was particularly alarming.  Of course, as the author is careful to point out, any sailing he does in the course of this book is pretty much a luxury cruise compared to what Cook endured.

At times I did feel the story bogged down.  This may be in part because Cook wasn’t all that fascinating or romantic a person.  He doggedly organized amazing explorations and he recorded what he saw in matter-of-fact terms.  Of course he had to be highly imaginative to even conceive of and pursue his voyages, and yet he didn’t seem nearly as excited about it as one would have liked him to be.  In the end, the author’s careful piecing together of the miscalculations on Hawaii that led to Cook’s death provided the most interesting information about Cook.  In a way that is sad, because the author is careful to show that in his last days Cook was not  acting with his normal patience and acute awareness of his circumstances.

This is a great book for fans of exploration and Captain Cook.  Also, I can’t think of anywhere to get this information delivered so well and with such a clear appreciation of its application to current times.

Traveling and Reflecting with Gloria Steinem

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Gloria Steinem’s new memoir, My Life on the Road, is just a gift.  This is a person I would so like to know.  Steinem has always projected a cool and confident mystique  —  she is thoughtful, rational and stratgic.  Yet it is clear from her stories that she had a very challenging, impoverished and unsettled childhood.  While her parents’ cross-country wandering may have been the source of  Steinem’s love of travel, it is also true that they provided her with precious little security and nothing came easy for her.  Certainly there was nothing inevitable about Steinem’s success.

This book is a collection of life stories and travel writing.  It moves gracefully among autobiographical stories and an eclectic mix of travel encounters and gives a good sense of how Steinem evolved into a feminist organizer.  She is an eager and avid traveler and comes across as a low-maintenance companion.  Steinem doesn’t just see new places  —  she relishes new experiences and new people.   All sorts of people come up do her and share their own stories, and she loves it.  She chides herself for sometimes making unfounded assumptions about people and relishes the surprises people present to her.

This is by no means a self-help book, but it is certainly inspirational.  I hope I will think of Steinem the next time I am confronted with travel snafus or have the opportunity to meet new people.  Say yes to the trip, and never assume.  More importantly, it is always the right thing to try to help people, to do whatever needs to be down and to be kind.

It would be nice if the women’s movement had succeeded, such that this book could be an anachronism.  Sadly, it remains terribly relevant.  The struggle continues, and we all need to try harder to advance equal rights for all women.

This is a great book.  Please read it!