Upstate Reading List

A recent post at the Greater Rochester Weblog metioned a recent book by Jay Gallagher called The Politics of Decline, about our grand and dysfunctional state government, and that it was "required reading for a New York mindset" which got me thinking about books, fiction and non-fiction, about Upstate. While I'm sure I'm not going to be quizzed on anything, I think it would be interesting to compile a body of suggested reading from everyone, or even just ideas of what to read next, that better inform our understanding of York State.

I've already commented on William R. Farrell's Classical Place Names in New York State, which is really more of a reference than a read. On the fiction side, the next book in my queue is The Saskiad, a coming of age story about a girl growing up on a 1960s style commune in Ithaca. In the graphic novel department, I've been eyeing The Jew of New York, about a mid-nineteenth century plan to establish a Jewish homeland upstate and carbonate Lake Erie, among other things. I've heard mixed reviews about The Last Good Chance, though it looks like an interesting read to get thinking about community revitalization plans upstate.

Despite this list of my own already in progress, I'm very interested in other people's experiences, so I'm reaching out for recommendations. What Upstate books would you recommend reading? Which ones would you caution against? Which ones do you plan on reading?

Browsing around not only online, but also in bookshops is an excellent way to get some ideas. For the truly dedicated, I've heard that over in Saugerties the Hope Farm bookstore has been specializing in New York books for nearly 50 years.

(Note: While I'm linking to Amazon for all these titles, I personally use it only as a database for authors, titles, and ISBN number, which I then take to my local bookstore and have them order. It's not cheaper or faster, but it's nice to support local business when you can.)

Posted by Natalie


Jesse said...

As far as York State Classics go, I don't think you can find much better than the Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper (the link here is to a complete copy of the books from the Gutenburg Project). I personally have not read them and have heard that they're somewhat ponderous and perhaps on ocassion offensive, but they're also some of the most fmaous novels to be set in York State.

Joe said...

Dreiser's 'Place in the sun' about the murder of Grace Brown by Cortland native Chester Gillete in the Adirondacks. rock.

Jon said...

A recent work of historical fiction wrapped in a romance/whodunit is Lauren Belfer's City of Lights about turn of the century Buffalo. Its great reading for reading for reading's sake and will serve as a basic introduction to the history of Buffalo Niagara and its famous residents.

There are countless NYC novels of the late 19th century... see William Dean Howells, Theodore Drieser, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Stephen Crane (who went to Syracuse University for a year while writing Maggie: A Girl of the Streets).

F. Scott Fitzgerald hated upstate New York after living in Buffalo and Syracuse as a child. His father was a soap salesmen who after losing his fortune moved his family from St. Paul, MN to upstate in an effort to make money. He failed, F. Scott never got over it. He was also a sickly child and the cold forever aggravated him. So, its no surprise that at the very end of Fitzgerald's last novel, Tender is the Night, on the very last page, he sends his failed main character, Dick Diver, back to Upstate to die in obscurity in a Bermuda Triangle of forgotten places:

"Dick opened an office in Buffalo, but evidently without success. Nicole did not find what the trouble was, but she heard a few months later that he was in a little town named Batavia, N.Y., practising general medicine, and later that he was in Lockport, doing the same thing. By accident she heard more about his life there than anywhere: that he bicycled a lot, was much admired by the ladies, and always had a big stack of papers on his desk that were known to be an important treatise on some medical subject, almost in process of completion. He was considered to have fine manners and once made a good speech at a public health meeting on the subject of drugs; but he became entangled with a girl who worked in a grocery store, and he was also involved in a lawsuit about some medical question; so he left Lockport.

After that he didn’t ask for the children to be sent to America and didn’t answer when Nicole wrote asking him if he needed money. In the last letter she had from him he told her that he was practising in Geneva, New York, and she got the impression that he had settled down with some one to keep house for him. She looked up Geneva in an atlas and found it was in the heart of the Finger Lakes Section and considered a pleasant place. Perhaps, so she liked to think, his career was biding its time, again like Grant’s in Galena; his latest note was post-marked from Hornell, New York, which is some distance from Geneva and a very small town; in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another."

Joe said...

I always screw up the titles between the movie version of Dreiser's book 'An American Tragedy' and the movie with Elizabeth Taylor 'A Place in the sun'. my bad.

NYCO said...

Natalie, on the older incarnation of my blog I had a feature called Upstate Reading List. Some of the books I recommended:

"The Black Hearts of Men," by John Stauffer. Amazing exploration of radical abolitionists (Frederick Douglass, Gerrit Smith, John Brown and James McCune Smith) and their friendship leading up to the raid on Harpers Ferry. Great history of upstate NY from 1840-1859.

"Treaty of Canandaigua 1794," a book of essays on the treaty, how it came to be, and issues arising in the present day from it. Great history.

"The Artificial River," by Carol Sherriff, a book about the Erie Canal that is the only one that utilizes as source material the correspondence between canal authorities and the ordinary people who lived along the canal. Lots of stuff about the birth of the working class and middle class in America. Not your average Erie Canal history.

I also recommended one chapter in a book called "The United States of Ambition," by Alan Ehrenhalt, which is all about how Rufus Elefante controlled the city of Utica.

Phil said...

"Oh, Albany" by William Kennedy is a fantastic non-fiction history of his town, the sub-title says it all: "Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels." As for Kennedy's novels, my favorite was "Roscoe", since it was loosely based on the real -life machine politics of Dan O'Connell and Erastus Corning.