A Satirical Novel of Historic New York

New York is an iconic city, ever hip and ever changing, with an accompanying literature that expresses its grit and glamour. Lists of iconic New York novels abound, compiled because they depict the marrow of the metropolis in a particular swath of time. Writers contributing to a New York literature are many and various: they include Melville, James, and Wharton in the nineteenth century and Fitzgerald, Baldwin, and McCarthy in the twentieth. You can compile your own list for the twenty-first. We’re only fifteen years in, but you will still have too many choices for writers that spin New York City as a central character. But where did it all begin?

Washington Irving’s A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty is not exactly a novel, but it is a fun read no matter how you characterize it. There were no American novels back then. We’re talkin’ 1809. A History of New York introduced the world to its ridiculous but perspicacious narrator, Diedrich Knickerbocker, a fusty Dutchman, who in 1904 elaborated on a delectable walk along the Battery and came to be a moniker for all things related to the burgeoning city and its inhabitants for over two hundred years, including its current basketball team. Who cares if Jon Stewart is leaving The Daily Show when you can read great political satire by the very first New York writer?

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Famous Last Words: Parting Lines From Our Favorite Characters

Legend has it that Oscar Wilde’s last words were “Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.” Unfortunately, the offensive wallpaper outlived Wilde—and his last remark has also outlived him and become part of literary history. In a great novel, a character’s last words can cover a vast range of emotions: despair, spite, hope, anger, peace. They are the words that stick with us long after the character is gone and the book is closed. We have collected some of our favorite famous last words here—the epic final utterances of characters who, despite their deaths, are immortal in our hearts. Be warned—if you haven’t read these books, spoilers ahead!
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Real Estate Has Never Been Sexier

In a recent meeting, my boss, literary agent Molly Friedrich, told a client she needed to write a sex scene. The novel in question buzzed with an unrequited energy, but we wanted the romantic payoff, too. The author blushed and said she couldn’t, too worried she’d end up on Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award list.

“Read some D. H. Lawrence,” I said. “Or Elena Ferrante. Anaïs Nin.”

“You know who can write a damn good sex scene?” Molly said. “Jane Smiley. Go read Good Faith. Then start writing.”

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A Suspenseful, Addictive Thriller of False Accusations

During the summer of 1987, I was between my first and second years at law school. It was a given that most students took a ridiculously overpaid summer job before their third year where the main requirement was to go to lunch and dinner in fancy restaurants, but snagging one your first summer was rare—and one in New York rarer still. I lucked out with a job with a major Chicago law firm’s fledging New York City office.

Back then, I was reading legal precedents for school at a staggering rate, and so when I read for pleasure I gravitated towards biography. On my first day at the office, I showed up carrying a thick book on the education of Richard Nixon.

By July, however, everyone was reading the same book: Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent.

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A Brief Ode to a Long and Beautiful Marriage

Calvin Trillin is not easy to sum up as an author; the good ones never are. His articles in The New Yorker and The Nation, as well as his books and poetry, range from the political to the humorous, from poignantly reflective to deeply sentimental. Naturally, all of his work is a tapestry of these qualities and more.

He might be known best for Alice, Let’s Eat, in which he chronicles travel adventures with his wife and two girls. Even great writers are lucky to have one tour de force in them. About Alice, an ode to his late wife, is surely Trillin’s masterpiece.

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A Hilarious and Unapologetically Irreverent Novel of Russia

“Germany is a good country . . . I’ve heard they wash the streets with shampoo there.”

Rosa Achmetowna is determined to get her family (and herself—really, mostly herself) out of the Soviet Union, and a marriage between her daughter and a visiting German national seems like the perfect plan. But this is not the first marriage plot Rosa has orchestrated. Her daughter, whom she mercilessly refers to as “stupid Sulfia,” has had two previous husbands, in large part due to Rosa’s manipulation.

These kinds of machinations are the heart of Alina Bronsky’s novel.

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A Classic Novel That Celebrates Sunny Spring Days

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

Ah, spring, you are most welcome! As Kenneth Grahame so deliciously puts it in his classic tale The Wind in the Willows, it is “moving in the air” and penetrating the earth, stirring something within us that has lain latent these past dark months.

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A Penetrating Exploration of Communication in the Digital Age

“This is an essay about a strain of nasty, knowing abuse spreading like pinkeye through the national conversation—a tone of snarking insult provoked and encouraged by the new hybrid world of print, television, radio, and the Internet,” writes author David Denby in the opening of Snark. As the title and opening line suggest, Snark is about snark, the vituperative and often shallow tactic that, in the age of the Internet, has turned our communication anemic, the schoolyard equivalent of an irritating shoulder-prod.

Published in 2009, following the rise of Barack Obama, Snark has a very particular mission in mind.

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For Fans of Beautiful Ruins: A Novel of Hope and Community in an Italian Village

Born and raised in San Benedetto, an Italian village obsessed with football (“soccer,” to Americans), Etto is an emotionally frayed young man slowly disengaging himself from the village after the deaths of his mother and twin brother. He sees life in San Benedetto as pointless, repetitive, and constrictive, and refuses to join in the village’s preoccupation with football.

Like Etto, my relationship to football has always been a bemused one, particularly when living in places like England where it’s a highly regarded sport, a national obsession verging on religion. There, football pulls strangers together to cheer for the national team during international matches, and compels best friends to fighting when they support opposing teams.

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A Dystopian Novel that Ignites and Enchants

Fiction for me is not an escape; it is an immersion in the real. I seek vivid renderings and eloquent language, beautifully parceled wisdom that I can take with me into my day. As such, I’ve never been much for tales of alternate universes, mystical beasts, or futuristic societies. Given my proclivity towards realism, I find that the eeriest and most effective science fiction reflects the world as it appears in a dream—elements altered such that familiar people and places take on new life while remaining wholly recognizable. You see a spurned lover but understand that this is your current spouse; your home is relocated to a foreign country, yet instinctually you know that this is the place you live, breathe, sleep.

Super Sad True Love Story is just this type of novel, which transports the reader to an instantly recognizable alternate reality.

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A Memoir that Beautifully Examines an Ordinary Life

I first encountered Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life six years ago, during my first semester of a graduate program in creative writing and at the suggestion of my thesis advisor. At first, I assumed my professor wanted me to study the book’s structure. Safekeeping is built of three sections (“Before,” “Mortality,” and “Here and Now”), each composed of vignettes, some three or four pages in length, and many as short as a paragraph.

This structure—vignettes, collected and individually titled—conveys Thomas’s motivation: to take stock of memories and moments previously unorganized, perhaps even hidden or ignored, to give her past meaning and achieve what is suggested in the epigraph, taken from the Beatles song “Hey Jude”: Take a sad song and make it better.

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