the last two books i read were so diametrically different in tone and subject matter, but the quality writing and compelling storylines in each warrant a quick personal plug...
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle
initially, the fact that i had "pre-work" for my public policy class really threw a wrench in my summer unemployment plans. gritting my teeth, i bought this book and sought out a variety of ways to avoid actually reading it until the absolute last moment. one week before the start of classes, i capitulated...only to be completely enthralled by the author's grim and gripping account of New York City's worst workplace disaster prior to the 9/11 tragedy.
in March 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory-- one of the largest garment factories in the city-- went up in flames, killing 146 workers, the majority of them young immigrant women. you are taken straight inside the inferno, reliving those precious details--locked doors, narrow stairwells, misplaced scraps of cloth-- as fire and smoke swept through the factory's upper floors, trapping scores of desperate workers in a matter of fifteen short minutes. this story, is not just a disaster saga; it is an engrossing social commentary, re-introducing readers to one of the most combustible times in our nation's socio-political history. Von Drehle takes great care to frame the story in the context of the times and from multiple angles-- the immigration boom at the turn of the century and its effects on urban culture; the growth of the american organized labor movement; the dominating political presence of Tammany Hall and city politics' subsequent shift to an era of more progressive reform ; and most notably, the humanizing of many of the individual Triangle workers-- add dimensions to an already riveting story. and as a new yorker, the book is a reminder of the living history we have in this city--from the corners of lower east side tenements to buildings on Washington Place (the Triangle building now houses NYU's chemistry classrooms). if you're a history or policy buff, or just want to be drawn in by a strong work of nonfiction, pick this one up-- you'll learn, and enjoy.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
some old work buds and i formed an ad-hoc book club of sorts and this was our second official book club selection. during our discussion over dinner and wine the other day, one sentiment was unanimous: WOW. we loved this book. it is everything that Great Fiction is suppose to be-- incredibly beautiful prose, fully fleshed out characters with tragic flaws, and a central narrative voice that a reader will surely empathize with. the crux of the story is built around Cal Stephanides, the protagonist who takes you through his life history-- beyond his conception and back in time to when his grandparents were about to flee Greece for America, taking with them a certain family secret that will unknowingly spill into the lives of their children and children's children. you see, Cal is no ordinary person-- Cal (nee Calliope) was brought up as a girl in Detroit, becoming a boy only when circumstances (or biology?) dictated it might be time to switch over.
this is an EPIC. similar to other epic family biographies (100 years of solitude comes to mind, as it's my personal favorite), this story illustrates the untenable connection we have to our families, the biological roadmap they unknowingly pass on to us, and a reminder that our past is always intertwined with our present--no matter how much we try to run away from it. tracing the lives of three generations of Stephanides, Middlesex relives Cal's unique family history set within the changing landscape of post-war America. it tells of the hope for and the inevitable loss of the American Dream. but it is also a story about identity-- gender roles, the immigrant experience, assimilation and all the gray areas in between that seek to define us. these characters will make you angry, sad, excited and perplexed and will probably shed some light on your own personal legacy. don't wait any longer. READ THIS BOOK...and tell me your thoughts when you've finished and finally taken a breath.