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Jul
7
2023

Josh Lambert (contributor): I’m not proud of it, but I initially resisted picking up Elizabeth Graver’s Kantika, released in April, because it was giving off such try-hard vibes. Marketing postcards, publicity emails, and review copies started showing up on my desk and in my inbox about a year ago, none of them subtle about presenting this book as the Sephardic novel we have all been waiting for. As a professor of American Jewish literature, I’m often asked to recommend novels of Sephardic life in the US, and I knew I would be delighted to have another to add to that not-especially-long list. But the title (“song” in Ladino), the cover (tilework evoking the East), the blurbs (“a gripping story of twentieth-century Sephardic exile and reinvention”), the dedication (“in memory of my grandmother”), the epigraph (from a “Ladino proverb”), the archival family photos at the beginning of each chapter—it all left me feeling a bit exhausted, and made me worried that this “multigenerational saga” rooted in family history would be too straightforwardly made-to-order.

The book’s first chapters, set in Turkey, Spain, and Cuba, didn’t entirely allay those concerns. Though skillfully and movingly told, they did check all the boxes I was expecting. The novel really came to life for me in its last third, as it turned, unexpectedly, into the intimate story of a mother raising a disabled stepdaughter. This, too, is based on Graver’s family lore—her aunt Luna Leibowitz wrote charmingly about life with cerebral palsy for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel—but Graver takes us into the consciousness of a kid with a disability, and the stepmother who has to overcome prejudices to care for her, with such sharpness and insight that it made me want to recommend the book to everyone I know.

I also started out a little skeptical of Idra Novey’s Take What You Need, published in March. I’ve admired Novey’s fiction and essays before, but when I opened this novel up to find it was alternating between two voices, chapter to chapter, I got worried. (You can blame my annoyance with that structure, and whatever else is bothering you, on Jonathan Safran Foer.) And I didn’t feel especially eager to learn more about the estranged relations between Leah, a somewhat indistinct (and possibly autofictional) woman living in New York, and Jean, her sort-of-stepmother who “never left the town where she was born . . . in the Southern Allegheny Mountains.” As I kept reading, I found bits here and there that drew me in: Jean, who has just died when the novel begins and narrates much of it in flashbacks, was an outsider artist who spent her final years constructing large metal towers, taking inspiration from Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, and Diane Arbus, as well as her Jewish family’s history in the scrap metal business. But other aspects of the story felt a bit pat—Jean, an idiosyncratic thinker living in a red state, befriended a neighbor kid and, guess what, there were some political and socioeconomic differences that may or may not have been overcome by an interpersonal bond.

I kept going, though, and when I reached the climactic scene, it bowled me over. It’s the chapter when Leah finally enters Jean’s house and sees the art she had been working on for all those years. It turns out that everything we’ve learned about Leah and Jean has been supplied so we have the complete context not just for how the art looks and why it was made, but also for all the emotions and history that Leah brings to bear when she encounters it, including the anxiety she feels when her son runs too quickly around it, ignoring her warnings. (That resonated; the one constant feature of my own museum visits over the past decade has been balancing my attempts to appreciate what I’m experiencing with my fear that one of my kids might bump into something and destroy it forever.) Reading this passage, I thought back to that moment at the beginning of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station when the narrator says that he “worried that [he] was incapable of having a profound experience of art.” Novey’s novel works overtime to remind us all, quite reassuringly, that we do have that capacity.

Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): Every few months, a friend of mine hosts a salon where she invites loved ones and their friends to share in-progress creative projects. The offerings have ranged widely since I started attending. People have presented many varieties of musical arrangements (acapella, guitar, electronic); poetry, family history, and cultural criticism; drawings and photography; and even a temperature quilt. At the last salon I attended, my friend Hallel gave a PowerPoint presentation on her then-forthcoming, now published, zine, Park Slop: A Walking Tour.

The title is a play on the Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, known today for its upscale shops and the affluent young couples who frequent them, strollers in tow. The project commemorates the area’s past life as a hub for lesbian community and political organizing between the 1970s and early 2000s by chronicling notable or representative locations from that era, organized into ten themes. Hallel, an archivist by trade, provides information on the significance of each location (including small details, like the recipe for one restaurant’s mocktails) alongside a photograph of each site in its current state. The themes range from the concrete, like nightlife and parenthood, to the abstract, such as self-segregation and memory. Yet even in the more archetypical travel guide categories, the information is not always what one would expect. The section on parenthood features the Dykes & Tykes East Coast Lesbian Mothers Defense Fund and their community events in Prospect Park; the one on worship acknowledges the often fraught intersections between religious institutions and queer constituents—while also documenting examples of churches that hosted HIV support groups or organizing meetings. Only two of the ten profiled institutions remain active—Ginger’s Bar and the Lesbian Herstory Archives—while the rest of the featured buildings are now nondescript private residences or storefronts. The zine doesn’t aim to be exhaustive; as Hallel writes in the introduction, “It does not contain every possible address where dyke shit went down, which would be impossible to compile, especially given the historically private nature of lesbian social life. The goal is to catalog a critical mass of addresses that gives a sense of the lifeblood of Dyke Slope,” as it was affectionately called.

The project is thoroughly researched and, in classic zine fashion, wonderfully DIY. Channeling the commitment to accessibility of those who inspired the project, the whole thing is available for pay-what-you-wish download (you can enter $0 for a free copy). If you’re interested in queer history, Brooklyn history, or the practice of remembering layers of the past beneath the streets we traverse now, you’ll learn a lot.

Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Many years ago, when I was reading and loving Henry Petoski’s great history of my favorite writing implement, the pencil, my then-girlfriend saw the book, shook her head, and said, “Only you, Mitch. Only you.” The brilliance of Petoski’s study is in its careful attention to all that has gone into creating the pencil as we know it, both technically and historically. Who thinks about the fact that just the right wood and lead material had to be found to give us a usable object, or knows that Eberhard Faber pencils—with their yellow body and black band around the eraser bracket—were modeled on the German flag? The things we take for granted around us make for some of the most interesting books.

A great recent example of such a work is Henry Grabar’s Paved Paradise, which has gotten me enthused about—and pontificating on—a subject we seldom think of as having world-historical significance: parking. While all drivers have worried about finding a spot, most rarely consider the social inequity involved in turning our streets over to the storage of other people’s personal property. This surrender of the commons is bad enough, but as Grabar definitively proves, it’s far from the worst aspect of our focus on parking our cars. In his compelling account, which leans heavily on Donald Shoup’s classic The High Cost of Free Parking, the central ill of parking is that city codes have long required the provision of absurd numbers of spots for every house, apartment building, store, and office complex. These minimums vastly increase the amount of space required for any new commercial building or private dwelling. In many cases, this adds so much to the price of a construction project that it’s never completed—or if it is, the cost is ultimately added onto rents and sales prices. Our fixation on parking has fueled the housing shortage and thus the homelessness crisis.

The numbers show that there is way too much parking in America. New York has three million spaces; Philadelphia, 2.2 million (3.7 spots for every household); the Bay Area, 15 million, which is 2.4 for each car and, Grabar writes, “enough to wrap a parking lane around the planet twice and still have some left over.” The idea that there aren’t enough available spots because we can’t find one where and when we want is the equivalent of Oklahoma’s Senator Inhofe bringing a snowball into the Senate as proof that global warming is a myth. To bring his data and analysis to life, Grabar tells—and tells well—numerous stories of business and housing disasters caused by parking requirements. We also learn about fiascos like the time the city of Chicago sold its parking meters to a private firm; then-Mayor Richard Daley claimed the move would result in a two billion dollar windfall, but it drained the city’s coffers instead.

When those of you in New York see cars parked in unmetered spots, you should think of this insight from Grabar: If every spot had a meter, then the revenue produced from making people pay for the storage of their property would enable free mass transit. Not a bad idea.

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