Life at the Dakota

Life at the Dakota coverLife at the Dakota: New York’s Most Unusual Address
Stephen Birmingham
Open Road Media (December 1, 2015),  243 pages
originally published in 1979
Kindle edition $6.00, Amazon paperback $12.20
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

This book tells you more than you would ever want to know about a building.

The Dakota is well known as being the residence of a number of famous people. It’s probably best known as the home of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, sadly because it was there in 1980 that Lennon was killed. This book was originally published in 1979, so it refers to “the Lennons” (as Birmingham rather oddly calls the couple) in the present tense.

John and Yoko were, however, just two of many famous residents. Among the original tenants in the nineteenth century were the Steinway and Schirmer families, Gustav Schirmer being, of course, the founder the music publishing company that bears his name. Residents of the building included Boris Karloff, Jose Ferrer and his wife Rosemary Clooney, Gwen Verdon, Judy Garland, Betty Friedan, Lauren Bacall, Leonard Bernstein, Rex Reed, Jack Palance, and playwright William Inge. Roberta Flack was the building’s first and, at the time the book was written, only black resident.

Life at the Dakota is not just about the people, although there are plenty of gossipy stories. It’s really a biography of the building. Birmingham describes the design, architecture, finances, electrical infrastructure, and plumbing of the building. It was interesting to read about how the building converted from rental apartments to a cooperative in 1960.

There are some fascinating passages in Life at the Dakota, but in the end the book is really too much of a good building.


Sourdough book coverSourdough: A Novel
Robin Sloan
MCD, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
First Edition edition (September 5, 2017), 272 pages
Amazon hardcover $15.08, Kindle edition $13.99

I actually read a physical hardcover. Terry bought this book and I read it when she finished it.

Author Robin Sloan understands high tech culture. His novel Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore involved Silicon Valley and the Google campus. Sourdough centers around San Francisco’s Silicon Gulch (though he doesn’t use the term) and the high tech world there.

Lois is a recent college grad recruited by a fictional San Francisco robotics company. Her long work hours prompt her to order some rather tasty delivery dinners from a service owned by a pair of brothers who not-so-legally set up a commercial kitchen in their apartment. When authorities start following up on their not-so-legal immigration status the brothers leave the country, but make a gift of their sourdough starter, a heritage of their culture, to Lois.

Lois starts baking sourdough bread and it eventually becomes her full-time work. Things get out of hand, however. I’ll leave it at that, because if you enjoy either bread making or high tech culture you’ll want to read this book.

The Music Shop: A Novel

The Music ShopThe Music Shop: A Novel
Rachel Joyce
Random House (January 2, 2018), 320 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $18.36

This highly regarded novel is the story of Frank, owner of a music shop on a dead-end street in London. He only sells vinyl and refuses to even consider stocking CDs. Frank has an amazing ability to understand exactly which album a person needs to turn his or her life around. It might be classical, jazz, or rock, but he finds for them exactly what they need.

Frank’s shop is surrounded by a tattoo parlor run by a grumpy woman, a religious gift shop run by a former priest, and pair of undertakers. There is a rundown pub nearby. Then there is Kit, Frank’s inept shop assistant. Much of the book involves the interaction among these folks.

More important, however, is the interaction between Frank and Ilse, a mysterious woman recently arrived from Germany. What happens between the two of them is what moves this novel forward.

The Music Shop is a quirky book, but the characters are engaging and the plot takes some interesting twists.

The View from the Cheap Seats

View from the Cheap Seats coverThe View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction
Neil Gaiman
William Morrow; Reprint edition (May 31, 2016), 549 pages
Kindle edition $8.99, Amazon paperback $10.19

I wasn’t familiar with Neil Gaiman until I saw this book mentioned. Turns out that he is a prolific writer of speculative fiction. He has written adult novels, children’s books, and graphic novels in collaboration with an illustrator. He has also written a lot of introductions to the books of others, as well as pieces in anthologies, and even album liner notes. He’s given a lot of speeches as well.

His output in these areas has been prolific, as this book attests. It is a hefty tome, or would be had I bought the print version rather than the Kindle edition, coming in at 549 pages. The pieces are interesting and engaging. It was perhaps a bit more of Neil Gaiman than I really needed, but it engaging reading nonetheless.

The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight

The Gang That Wouldn't Write StraightThe Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight
Marc Weingarten
Three Rivers Press, March 25, 2010, 338 pages
Amazon Kindle edition $4.99

I learned of this book in another book that included it in its references and bibliography. It was a fun and entertaining read.

The bulk of the book is about the new journalism of the sixties and seventies. The author goes into detail about writers such as Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson (friends and rivals) as well as the editor/publishers, such as Clay Felker and Jann Wenner, who bankrolled and supported them. Fascinating stuff.

But in the beginning of the book Weingarten takes pains to point out that Tom Wolf and his generation did not invent the new journalism, a methodology in which the writer inserts him or her self into the story rather that trying to remain objective. He describes how Charles Dickens did it in the nineteenth century and George Orwell did the same in the first half of the twentieth century.

At the end of the book the author describes how Felker for the most part, though not entirely, abandoned new journalism in New York magazine in favor of lifestyle stories catering to the Manhattan wealthy, and then in his overreach lost the magazine to Rupert Murdoch.

This is a fascinating read for anyone interested in twentieth century American journalism.

Modern Lovers

Modern Lovers coverModern Lovers
Emma Straub
Riverhead Books (May 31, 2016), 366 pages
Kindle edition $7.99, Amazon paperback $11.31

I find “college friends” novels hard to resist so I bought this one. It was actually quite engaging.

Elizabeth, Andrew, Zoe, and Lydia had a band in college, for which Elizabeth wrote many of the songs. Lydia was the face of the band, but met with an untimely death.

When the novel takes place Elizabeth and Andrew are married and living in Brooklyn. Elizabeth is a real estate agent. Andrew is living off of his family’s money. Harry is a high school senior trying to figure out college.

Zoe lives a couple of blocks away and is married to her lover Jane. The two women own a restaurant and have a daughter named Ruby who is a year older than Harry and did not get in to any of the colleges to which she applied. The novel is about the interactions among these people and the crises that they encounter. Lydia is very much present in the book, even though she is long departed.

I think I’ll leave it there. If you enjoy the college buddy ensemble genre this one is well worth reading.

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo DaVinci coverLeonardo da Vinci
Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster, 624 pages (October 17, 2017)
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $20.32

Walter Isaacson is a superb biographer and chronicler of nonfiction, and his latest book, Leonardo da Vinci is no exception. Not only is it well written and engaging, but it is painstakingly researched. Much of the detail in this biography comes from Leonardo’s notebooks, to which Isaacson was given access. He also uses a variety of other sources, both contemporary or near-contemporary, as well as modern. He makes sure that conflicting scholarly perspectives are given fair attention.

There is a lot to learn about Da Vinci in this book. He has the surname he does because he originally came from the town of Vinci. He was illegitimate and his father never chose to legitimize him, which he could have done. That’s probably a good thing, because Da Vinci’s father was a notary and had he been legitimized Da Vinci would probably have been expected to take up that profession. He was gay, and he had a couple of male companions whom he supported throughout much of his life.

Painting was not his first love. He conceived of a variety of different machines, many of which were designed to assist whichever city-state was his current employer to be more effective in the execution of warfare. Most were fanciful; a few were actually built. One of his first jobs for the autocratic Duke of Milan was as an impresario and designer of court pageants. He missed deadlines and often failed to complete works.

Leonardo was a complex man and Isaacson does justice to that complexity. If you find Da Vinci interesting this book will be well worth your time.