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The Balsam Hill Book Club: A New York State of Mind

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The city of New York has been the subject of numerous novels, and for good reason. This venerable yet irreverent metropolis lends itself as both the setting and the storyline of political, cultural, and artistic revolutions. Its five boroughs are home to a multitude of men and women who come from various ethnic backgrounds, religious affiliations, and social groups; with each individual telling a unique story. The streets of New York have always fostered expressions of diversity from a blend of individualism; of hope born out of despair; of idealism spawned by life’s harshest truths. What exactly is that New York state of mind? Here are five breathtaking novels that depict the character of an urban jungle that has come to represent an ideoscape as well:

Photo by drpavloff via Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.
Photo by drpavloff via flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.

J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye

Catcher in the Rye

Hailed as one of the greatest American novels of all time, Salinger’s 1951 masterpiece follows the enigmatic Holden Caulfield as he comes to grips with the realities of life after his expulsion from Pencey Prep, a prestigious boarding school in Pennsylvania. Lost and alone, he heads to New York and visits his old haunts, like Radio City and the Museum of Natural History, while trying to understand his predicament and create a suitable plan for his life. Imbued with one of fiction’s most iconic voices, this novel portrays the city’s undeniable characteristic as a haven for lost souls finding their way in the world.

Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Considered a modern masterpiece by most literary critics, this lyrical novel revolves around the struggles and triumphs of the Nolan family as they try to capture the elusive American dream from their modest home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Divided into five sections, this narrative not only provides a captivating meditation on the nature of poverty and perseverance, but it also beautifully discusses the hardships that most immigrant families face when they come to New York – adversities that many continue to face today. 

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar

The Bell jar

The autobiographical novel, which is Plath’s only fictional piece among her impressive body of work, follows the plight of Esther Greenwood, a young writer from Boston, and her experiences and realizations during a summer internship at a New York magazine for women and her subsequent failure in trying to get accepted into a writing course. Heartbreaking and brutal in its honesty, the novel abandons the task of detailing the physical struggles of living in the concrete landscape, but instead focuses on the emotional and psychological difficulties of succeeding in a big and demanding place such as New York.

Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City

Chronic City

Critically acclaimed by the New York Times, Lethem’s satirical narrative focuses on the often absurd and excessive lifestyle celebrated in the Upper East Side. The novel follows Chase Insteadman, a former child star, and his attempts to go through the motions of daily life while struggling with a failed film career and the impending death of his fiancé stuck inside a malfunctioning space station orbiting the Earth’s atmosphere. The novel expertly gives its readers a taste of the numerous personalities that roam the streets of New York and the whimsical and carnivalesque nature of the city that never sleeps.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Adapted into film in 2012, this beautiful novel follows the adventures of Oskar Schell, a nine-year old boy left fatherless by the 9/11 attacks. A year after the tragedy, Oskar stumbles upon a mysterious key among his father’s belongings. Believing that the strange item holds great significance, the precocious young lad then ventures into the open streets of a city filled with fear and uncertainty; the lad ignoring the dangers lurking in the metro and indifferent to the ramification of his actions. Masterfully written, this narrative brilliantly shows the resilience of New York City and stands as a testament to the strength and courage of its citizens. 

The New York state of mind is that place within us where we encounter truths about the world seen through the lens of this sprawling metropolis. And through these exceptionally unique book recommendations from Balsam Hill, one can easily understand the very narrative of such an enigmatic city.

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