Book Club at the Red Table

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 1.58.11 PMI belong to my daughter’s Book Club. She supplies the good company, calls in the bagel order to Murray’s in Chelsea and sets the table. I sit back, relax and take it all in, curious as to what each member thinks of the particular book chosen that month. It’s a good group—smart, insightful, funny, all different professions sharing the dual passion of friendship and books. It is great for a writer to be in their company. It’s like having your very own focus group—you listen to what they like in a book; what gave them pause; what made them want to continue; and what, if anything, disturbed them.

Last month, for the first time, an author joined the group—Julia Dahl who has recently published a terrific first novel, INVISIBLE CITY. I wasn’t the one who invited her; she came courtesy of another member, Jeff, who works for Julia’s husband. But I am pleased to say I was the one who chose the novel as our monthly read.

From the very start, Julia, cute, charming, gracious, stiletto sense of humor, fit right in with the group. Except for me, they are all around the same age—early 30s. I sat back, sipped my coffee and watched Julia handle their pinpoint questions with ease and confidence. The novel deals with a murder in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community and one determined young reporter’s quest to get to the truth. It is beautifully written, fast-paced, New York City rich dialogue and what is most impressive to me, especially with a first novel, is how quickly a reader is engaged in the story. In less than 20 pages, Dahl has you in her world—the tabloids on one end; the cloistered life of the Ultra-Orthodox on the other; and, in the middle, a young woman grappling to come to terms with a mother who long ago abandoned her.

The atmosphere around the Red Table was relaxed and casual, the questions born of curiosity, the answers delivered in a confident manner. The Red Table Book Club is as interested in the process of how a book is written as much as they are in how well the final version is executed. They asked Julia about her research, about whether she felt threatened by those in the community, about how much her newspaper background helped her in writing the novel. It was a pleasure for me to be a small part of that special Sunday morning.

We hear so much about the death of the written word, about how no one reads anymore and no cares about books. And there is, sadly, proof of that all around us—stores closing by the week, sales decreasing, lists cut back. It is sad enough to walk down certain streets and no longer see the book store I used to haunt, a young man spending money he didn’t have on books he needed to have.

And then I look around the table, at the bright and eager faces of The Red Table Book Club and see them chatting with a young author who has nothing but a brilliant future in front of her and it makes me realize that maybe all that negative talk about the demise of the book can be defeated. That there are many people out there who still love a good story well told and will reach for it in any fashion they can.

There was one other thing about that morning that stayed with me. One of the members of the Red Table Club, Matt, had told me earlier that he had signed with a literary agency. They had agreed to take on the novel he wrote in his free time, when he wasn’t teaching or helping his wife, Phoebe, take care of just about 2-year-old Nate. He was too shy to mention that to Julia so I did.

Her reaction was one of sheer joy. “That’s fantastic,” Julia said. “That is huge. That’s the biggest obstacle. That means they think they can sell it and they will.”

And that’s one of the many things I love about the writing life. How welcoming it is to new members of the fraternity. How eager they are to reach out and help the younger ones following in their path or in the case of Julia and Matt, quick to embrace the newest author in the group.

I saw that and thought back to when I was a teenager and wrote a long letter to Pete Hamill, then a columnist for the New York Post. I remembered how kind he was to me and, later, when he went to the News and I started there as a copy boy how generous he was of his time and his talent. He got as much of a kick helping me as I did absorbing his valuable lessons.

That was my take-away from that morning. A young author, flush with the success of her new book and deep into writing her second, happily sharing a bagel, some coffee, conversation and experience with a group of readers who had, by the end of the meeting, become her friends.

And that is truly what any reader is to an author—a friend.

A very good friend.

 

 

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The Birthplace of Pizza

Pizza was born in Naples, Italy, in the heart of the poorest city in Europe. Some history books date the arrival of the first pizza as far back as 997 A.D. while a number of historians place it closer to 1738. In 1843, Alexandre Dumas wrote about the pleasure of eating a pizza in Naples.

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More than a few Neapolitans will argue that the actual date was sometime in 1870, when Pizzeria Da Michele opened its doors and pulled the first marinara (oregano, garlic, and San Marzano tomatoes) from inside a 485-degree brick oven. Continue reading “The Birthplace of Pizza”

How Italy Saved My Life

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Italy saved my life.

I first arrived there in the summer of 1969, 14 years old and thousands of miles removed from the streets of my New York City neighborhood. I left behind parents waging a futile battle against a crumbling marriage and a jagged mountain of debt and my closest friends beginning their surrender to the allure of drugs and a life of petty crime and one-way jobs that always follow in their wake.

I didn’t know what I would find in Italy but knew, even at such a young age, that whatever it was it couldn’t be much worse than what I was leaving behind. We lived in a four-room 10th Avenue tenement railroad apartment whose windows cracked and froze during long winter nights and were incapable of capturing even a slight breeze across many a brutal August summer. The night before my flight was to leave for Rome I sat with my mother on the stoop of our building, each of us cooling off with a Puerto Rican shaved ice cone. “You sure you want me to go?” I asked, speaking in Italian since my mother stubbornly refused to learn English, her one rebellious act against an American family and a way of life that for her amounted to little more than a prison sentence.

She nodded and then pointed to the street and the apartment buildings and clusters of neighborhood people milling about doing their best to escape the summer heat. “Do you want this to be the rest of your life?” she asked. “If you do, then stay and your father can find other uses for the money. But if this isn’t want you want, then get on that plane and go to Italy.”

“What’s there that’s not here?” I asked.

Continue reading “How Italy Saved My Life”

A True Canyon of Heros

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It is, for me, the most peaceful place I could ever hope to find.

The Church of Santa Croce in the city of Florence, Italy is the final resting place of many of the giants of the Renaissance. Among those who lie beneath a variety of ornate marble tombs are Macchiavelli, Galileo, Dante, Rossini, Vasari, Ghiberti and, the Divine One himself, Michelangelo.

I stepped inside the church on my first visit to Italy when I was 14. It was then I first began to understand what it meant to be Italian. Continue reading “A True Canyon of Heros”

Ischia: An Island of Memories

 

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It began, as it so often does in Italy, with a love affair.

In the steamy summer months of 1960, a movie crew arrived on the Italian island of Ischia, 18 miles off the coast of Naples, to continue filming what would turn out to be one of the most expensive films ever made, “Cleopatra.” Soon after their arrival, the stars of the movie—Elizabeth Taylor (the Angelina Jolie of her day) and Richard Burton (the Welsh version of Brad Pitt)–began a love affair that caught the attention of paparazzi around the world. Photographers by the hundreds swarmed the island and followed the couple wherever they went. Since both stars happened to be married at the time (Taylor to then well-known singer Eddie Fisher), a world-wide romantic scandal ensued, complete with harsh headlines and, more importantly, photos of the madly-in-love duo. Continue reading “Ischia: An Island of Memories”

John Douglas, The Profiler

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It happened in Detroit on a Super Bowl Sunday in 1972. FBI headquarters had ordered a cross country gambling raid, looking to rope in 1,000 bookies and shut down as many parlors as possible in a one-day raid. One-third of those arrests were expected to come out of the Detroit office. The gambling houses would need to be hit hot and fast, since they were always on the look-out for such attacks, especially on high-level gambling days like Super Bowl Sunday. “I made three arrests that day,” John Douglas recalls. “One of them turned the direction of my life completely around. Continue reading “John Douglas, The Profiler”

The Tuscan Life

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The Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, in the center of historic Florence, is the oldest herbalist pharmacy of its kind in the world. It is where Michelangelo, Dante, Da Vinci and Galileo and other giants of the Renaissance came in search of cures for their various ailments. It had once been a monastery, home to Dominican monks who worked the herbal gardens in search of medicinal remedies. The modern world is left outside once you pass through the thick, ornate wooden doors. Continue reading “The Tuscan Life”

Confessions of a Reluctant Dog Person

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(I originally wrote this for Bark Magazine back in 2011, the year Midnight Angels came out.) 

Four years ago, I was in the dairy section of a supermarket when my cell phone rang. My then-23-year-old daughter was on the other end.

“Which would make you angrier,” she asked. “If I told you I was in jail or if I told you I bought a puppy?”

“How long would you be in jail for?” I said. Continue reading “Confessions of a Reluctant Dog Person”

A Name By Any Other Name: The Top 10 Mobster Nicknames

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Albert “The Mad Hatter” Anastasia

“JOEY CUPCAKES” PLED not guilty. That would be Joseph “Joey Cupcakes” Urgitano charged with taking a metal baseball bat and doing a number on two men who were harassing a woman on West 14th Street in New York City last month. For my money, I believe “Joey Cupcakes.” For two reasons: (1) With a nickname like that, dollars to donuts he would stand up for a dame in distress and (2) His lawyer is the great Murray “Don’t Worry” Richman. For this kind of charge, that’s the best kind of legal money can buy.

If you’re going to go into the business of crime (and I’m not saying “Joey Cupcakes” is in that business) then you need yourself a nice nickname, one that people and, more importantly, the press, will remember. Here are 10 of my favorites: Continue reading “A Name By Any Other Name: The Top 10 Mobster Nicknames”