I’ve been putting off New York for a while now, but as I finished Hawaii, I decided to come back to the opposite end of the country–and to my roots.
I was born and raised in a small town in upstate New York. I have family in the urban areas of upstate–Binghamton, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo–and the rural, small farm areas outside of Cobleskill (not too far from Gloversville, where Richard Russo grew up). I have only visited New York City twice–once when I was around 2 years old, and the second time around 5 years ago, so I’m woefully ignorant of New York City boroughs and neighborhoods!
But I learned a very long time ago that when someone asked where I was from, I had to specify “upstate” New York, or people would assume I was from NYC. So it’s important to me to include books from upstate as well as from the city for this challenge (even more so when I realized the Other Blogger didn’t cover a single book from outside the city and Long Island). I’ve found several that look promising, but the one gap I’d be interested in filling is an upstate novel that takes place in one of the other cities rather than small towns and farming communities. I may add something if I come across it. UPDATE: I’m adding Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, another Young Adult read, which takes place in Syracuse.
I’ve accidentally read a couple in advance of this: Finding Dorothy by Elizabeth Letts took place in South Dakota, California, and upstate New York, near Syracuse. I reviewed it on my California Revisited page. I also read Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese, which took place in Ethiopia, New York City, and Boston. I mentioned it in my review of The Night Birds because it, like several Minnesota books (as well as The Sledding Hill from Idaho) had a character who suffered from selective mutism. As I said there, however, the book, while a very good read, didn’t really lend itself to this challenge, especially here, as much of the New York City parts take place in hospital settings where the main character is studying to become a doctor. I also read The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin not that long ago, but didn’t review it here as it includes an abundance of locales, including New York City.
There are many classic books set in New York City, of course, and I’ve read many of them, from Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans to Young Reader’s books like The Cricket In Times Square and From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. However, somehow I’ve only read short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, none of her novels, which are often set in upstate New York. I’m definitely remedying this oversight! I’m also excited to have found a Young Adult read set on one of the many Native American Reservations in upstate New York.
I do want to mention a couple of other books for Young Readers set in New York: Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff really resonated for my son when I read it with him a couple of years ago. There were some really good messages about friendship, but mainly I loved the way Albie bloomed when he found an adult who accepted him without expressing disappointment. Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin is set in upstate New York. It’s a great dog story with a main character who has Asperger’s. She’s pretty high functioning, but her father has trouble understanding and helping her appropriately. She really stretches herself in order to help her dog, but I love that Martin has her use her strengths in her quest as well.
Here’s my list for New York City (note that most of these take place in Manhattan):
The Wedding Bees by Sarah-Kate Lynch (2014) – I’m picking this particularly for the outsider’s view of New York City. The main character is originally from South Carolina, and it sounds a bit like Chocolat with bees and honey–each spring Sugar lets her queen bee wander around a map and pick their next destination. I’m not sure if there’s magical realism, but it certainly sounds like there could be. It’ll be a light read, but I’m hoping to get some nice observations about NYC as Sugar plunks down with her bees in East Village, Manhattan.
Monster by Walter Dean Myers (1999) – This is a Young Adult pick for New York. As I mentioned in my post on Chris Crutcher’s The Sledding Hill, Myers’ book Fallen Angels made the American Library Association’s list for Top 100 Banned Books for 1990 to 1999. I’m surprised his book Monster didn’t as well, but it has won several awards. It tells the story of a sixteen-year-old boy on trial for murder, seen through his eyes and told by him as a series of film shots. This is a classic that I’ve wanted to read for quite a while. That being said, I’m a little concerned about whether it has aged well or not since it was published 30 years ago. Takes place in Harlem, Manhattan.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018) – I’ve been seeing a lot of talk about this one. “A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo” (from Goodreads publisher’s blurb). I wanted a Latinx novel for New York City, and this fits the bill! I’m also interested in Acevedo’s second novel With the Fire On High just published in May 2019, which sounds like it’s more in my comfort zone, but I’m definitely pushing the limits with the number of books I have lined up for New York! UPDATE: This was a wonderful book, and I’d recommend it, but not for this challenge. The setting was there, but mostly generic trains and brownstone stoops, with the occasional bit about the weather that could have just as well been Chicago as New York.
Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older (2015) – A Young Adult urban fantasy mixed with Latinx folklore, set in Brooklyn using graffiti as a conduit for magic. I enjoy a good urban fantasy, and I love the idea of street art being imbued with magic. Even though this gives us three Young Adult novels for NYC (!), it’s different enough from any of the others for me to add it–and I don’t have any other fantasy/science fiction/dystopia/alternate history books for New York.
The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall (2018) – This is a dual timeline story, linked by advertising. In 1949, Charlotte (who lives with her family in Brooklyn) wants to pursue a career in advertising but is blocked by her father. She and her friend Rose compete in the Miss Subway beauty contestant and are faced with some difficult decisions. Almost 70 years later, Olivia is an advertising executive looking for the perfect pitch for the NYC subways account when she stumbles across the Miss Subways contest and discovers a personal connection.
The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis (2018) – This is another dual timeline novel, this one centered on Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan and the art within it. Clara’s story starts in 1928. She is teaching at the Grand Central School of Art, but dreams of seeing her illustrations grace the covers of magazines like Vogue. She is stymied by the glass ceiling, however. Virginia’s story is set in 1974 and centers on efforts to save the crumbling terminal. She has taken a job at the decrepit and crime-ridden Terminal in a desperate bid for solvency, but discovers a hidden work of art that might help save Grand Central.
And these are the books I’ve chosen from upstate:
The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson (2018) – This is a literary suspense novel set in the early 1960s, partly in Wisconsin, partly in upstate New York. “In the autumn of 1960, Angie Glass is living an idyllic life in her Door County, Wisconsin hometown. At twenty-one, she’s married to charming, handsome Paul, and has just given birth to a baby boy. But one phone call changes her life forever. When Paul’s niece, Ruby, reports that her father, Henry, has committed suicide, and that her mother, Silja, is missing, Angie and Paul drop everything and fly to the small upstate town of Stonekill, New York to be by Ruby’s side” (from the Goodreads publisher’s blurb). Stonekill is a fictional town in Westchester County, in the Catskill Mountains just north of New York City, and Silja’s story takes place partly in a Finnish community in Brooklyn.
If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth – This is an upstate Young Adult pick set on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation in 1975. It tells the story of a friendship between a boy from the reservation and another who moves onto the nearby Air Force Base, and the music they bond over. Gansworth grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation in Niagara County, New York, near Lockport and Niagara Falls. This sounds like it’s a bit on the younger side of Young Adult, but I’ll update after I’ve read it. I’m looking forward to the music!
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) – Yes, I’m adding a 2nd Young Adult book for upstate! With the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings not too far behind us and the Me Too movement perhaps dwindling, Speak feels as pertinent as ever. It also fills an upstate void I was hoping to hit–it takes place in Syracuse, one of the many urban communities in upstate New York. As a last minute addition, it does not appear on the map below, but for those unfamiliar with New York geography, Syracuse is directly south (about 40 miles) of the eastern edge of Lake Ontario (the eastern of the two Great Lakes bordering New York state). Trigger warnings for rape.
We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (1996) – I found this one at a local Little Free Library. It takes place in western upstate New York, in the Chautauqua Valley. The Mulvaneys are the perfect family until something happens on Valentine’s Day 1976, which is never talked about, and changes everything. It covers themes of secrets, exile, family and what we’ll do to maintain our family image. This was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Surprisingly, I haven’t read any Joyce Carol Oates before, but many of her books seem to be set in upstate New York. She was born in Lockport, near Niagara Falls, and earned her undergraduate degree at Syracuse University. Trigger warnings for rape/sexual assault.
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo (2007) – Set in a small town in upstate New York, this novel deals with the theme of “movers vs stayers,” which resonates quite strongly for me, and probably many others. The main character, who still lives in the upstate town he grew up in, is planning a trip to Venice, to visit a friend from his childhood who escaped to become an expatriate artist in Italy. It’s long, and Russo gets some criticism for not being very enlightened in terms of gender and race, so I may give it a miss, but it sounds like a great one for upstate New York. We’ll see how the others go and how quickly. While there is a town of the same name on Long Island, Russo’s Thomaston is a fictitious town upstate, based in part on Russo’s hometown of Gloversville on the edge of the Adirondacks.