Dave Wood's Book Report, July 19, 2006
I began visiting New York in the 1970s and loved it from the beginning. Back then it was dirty and dangerous but irresistible. Today it has calmed down and cleaned up and is still irresistible.
I've always wondered what it would have been like back in the 1930s and 1940s when the city was in its heyday, before its infrastructure began to crumble and the upper crust moved out and their brownstones were split into warrens resided in by the less fortunate. I found out a good bit of what it was like by reading William Styron's "Sophie's Choice," in which the narrator, Stingo, takes an apartment in a charming section of Brooklyn.
But I found out more just recently when I read "Let Me Finish," by Roger Angell (Harcourt, $25). Angell is well-known as one of our country's best writers about baseball. Less well-known is that he is a long time editor at the New Yorker, succeeding his mother, Katharine, who edited there during the magazine's golden age and who divorced Angell's father and married another New Yorker, the great writer, E.B. White.
Angell is 86 years old now and has written a charming book about his life during those Glory Years, both in Gotham and lazy summers spent in Maine with his father, and later mother and stepfather.
His father was a prominent attorney who was chummy with some of the great personalities of his day and Angell, the precocious kid, was right there soaking it up. An index to what life was like back then: It was normal for his busy father to take Angell and his sister to at least one baseball game a week and sometimes they'd hit Yankee Stadium, Ebbetts Field and even take a trip to see the Giants.
The book is very episodic and doesn't go from beginning to end. Angell just picks a subject that suits his fancy and takes off with it. One of my favorite chapters is the rise, fall and reappearance of the martini cocktail, about which Angell, like his stepfather, is an aficianado. Angell charts its history from the days when it was 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth, to 6 to 1, 8 to 1 to bone dry with no vermouth at all. Nowadays he complains that the "new" martini rarely has any gin at all, the victim of yuppiedom.
He reports that one day he was talking to Bill Clinton about the phenomenon when the ex-president told Angell that when Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford he heard about the Field Marshall Montgomery Martini.
And how was that made?
"Fifteen to one," Clinton replied. "That's the sort of superiority Montgomery always demanded before he'd attack the enemy."
This is just a teeny sampling of all the good stuff that Angell writes about, including descriptions of various New Yorker staff members, the movies he saw as a kid and the Neccos he ate while watching them.
In his introduction, he's quick to point out that the title "Let Me Finish" is not to suggest he's finished writing (thank God), but rather evokes the picture of "A garrulous gent at the end of the table holding up one hand, while he tries to remember the great last line of his monologue."
Moving now from the urbane rationality of Roger Angell to the nuttiness of the hippie movement we have "Timothy Leary," by Robert Greenfield (Harcourt, $28). At almost 700 pages it was a bit too thick for me (I wish Angell's would have been thicker). But for those who liked Leary's orders to "Tune in, turn on, and drop out" it's a book full of names from the counter culture movement by an award winning author who earlier wrote about the Rolling Stones and Jerry Garcia.
On the regional front we have "Beating the Powers that Be," by Sean Scallon (Order at www.PublishAmerica.com). With Democrats and Republicans seemingly unable to get anything done other than hurling insults at each other, it seems particularly appropriate that Scallon should write a book about successful third parties of the past, including the Non-Partisan League of North Dakota, the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota and the Progressive Party of Wisconsin.
Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.