— A couple of months ago I wrote a long article about the writer Richard Russo and his new memoir, “Elsewhere,” which talks about his childhood in Gloversville. All of Russo’s novels are set in Gloversville, although he renames the city — in his Pulitzer-winning novel “Empire Falls,” he calls it Empire Falls, and in his great book “Nobody’s Fool,” he calls it North Bath. Anyway, writing about Russo and his connection to Gloversville inspired me to pick up his first novel, “Mohawk,” which was published in 1986. Mohawk is obviously a stand-in for Gloversville, and it’s fairly easy to identify the local landmarks Russo is describing — his Nathan Littler Hospital, for example, is clearly based on Nathan Littauer Hospital.
“Mohawk” is full of local references, and would be a fun read even if it wasn’t a very good novel. Characters visit the track in Saratoga, and consider Schenectady and Albany big cities. There’s also commentary on the decline of the glove industry, and the pollution caused by the tanneries — two unfortunate trends drawn from Gloversville’s recent history.
But what makes “Mohawk” a good book are the qualities that will be familiar to readers of Russo’s fiction: rich characters, a strong sense of place and attention to detail, narrative momentum. “Mohawk” isn’t perfect — I thought that its second half, in particular, wasn’t as good as its first, and that the mystery at the heart of the story was not as intriguing as the book’s clues and set-up suggested. That said, “Mohawk” is a pretty good novel, and an excellent first novel, with many fine moments and insights. It might not be as good as “Nobody’s Fool,” but few books are.
— I went to Union College earlier this week to see inaugural poet Richard Blanco, who read his poetry and talked about his life as a poet and gay Cuban American who now lives in Bethel, Maine, of all places.
I was unfamiliar with Blanco’s work before his visit, but I really enjoyed it. His work is personal, humorous, poignant and accessible, with interesting and beautiful insights into the way childhood and family shape the people we become. In his poem “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” Blanco reflects on a trip to Miami as an adult, and his anger and disappointment at the changes to the city of his youth; his refrain, “There should be nothing here I don’t remember,” is particularly affecting, and will hit home with anyone who has ever had the jarring experience of realizing that life in a place goes on without you. One of the things I enjoyed most about “Looking for the Gulf Motel” was Blanco’s sharp attention to detail, and how vivid his images are: “My mother should still be in the kitchenette/of The Gulf Motel, her daisy sandals from Kmart/squeaking across the linoleum, still gorgeous/in her teal swimsuit and amber earrings/stirring a pot of arroz-con-pollo, adding sprinkles/of onion powder and dollops of tomato sauce.”
Blanco read his inaugural poem, “One Today,” last. Unbeknownst to me, inaugural poems are written for the occasion, meaning that Blanco couldn’t just select a poem for the occasion, but had to write one in a two-or three-week period. I actually liked “One Day” the least of all the poems Blanco read, though it’s still a very good poem — I felt that it lacked the personal insights and vivid, specific memories that make his work interesting. However, a poem about the idea of America is probably a better fit for a presidential inauguration than a poem about, say, your grandmother.
Anyway, click here to read “One Day” and hear Blanco read it.
— Last week I wrote about Christa Parravani, a Guilderland High School graduate who is reading at 8 p.m. to day at the New York State Museum.
Parravani’s memoir, “Her,” about her relationship with her twin, who died of a drug overdose, just went on sale this week, and it’s pretty good, especially for a first book. I’ve read chunks of it, and now I’m going back and reading what I missed, and I’m really appreciating Parravani’s clear voice and ability to write about tragedy in a very beautiful and emotionally resonant way. The book also provides insight into what it’s like to be an identical twin — a topic I haven’t really read about before.
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