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Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue: A Novel of Pastry, Guilt and Music Paperback – Feb 28 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
The bestselling author of 1968, Salt and Cod makes an uneven transition to fiction in his first novel, an erratic snapshot of the East Village's ethnic melting pot set during the late 1980s. The story opens with a bang when a Jewish restaurant owner is murdered in the first chapter, a tragedy that sends protagonist Nathan Seltzer into spasms of anxiety as he wonders if he should cash in, sell his lucrative property (the Meshugaloo Copy Shop) and leave his drug-riddled neighborhood. But Kurlansky ditches that promising subplot to track Nathan's erotic, pastry-obsessed affair with the daughter of a German baker. Nathan's brother Harry also enters the picture as he engineers his own affair with a hefty, African-American prostitute and junkie named Florence. Unfortunately, there isn't much rhyme or reason to the rest of the novel, which consists mostly of scattershot introductions of wacky secondary characters, including a Latin drug dealer who becomes a successful restaurant owner, a therapist who tries to help Nathan conquer his claustrophobia while passionately rooting for the Mets, and a singer named Chow Mein Vega who incorporates Yiddish influences into his lone dance hit. Occasionally the scenes are funky and entertaining, but the lack of a story line eventually wins out over Kurlansky's obvious love of the neighborhood.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
This novel covers very little territory geographically, but its human characters stretch from the shtetl to Caribbean isles and beyond. These denizens of New York's Lower East Side come from Germany, Italy, Poland, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. Mashed together on very little land, lives collide and combine in a maelstrom of languages, customs, foods, addictions, and violence. The beginnings of neighborhood gentrification foreshadow imminent change. Kurlansky's apt description of all this is meshugaloo, a combination of Yiddish and Spanish words that points to a sort of radical craziness. Amidst all this, Nathan Seltzer tries to fend off Kopy Katz, a predatory chain eager to swallow up his little photocopy shop, which plays a benevolent role in neighborhood life. Meanwhile, Nathan also has his eye on the daughter of the German pastry-shop owner. A mysterious murderer adds a frisson to this melange of foods and funk. Anyone not intimate with both Yiddish and Spanish and the folkways of Manhattan may find some of this story opaque. The author closes with recipes for caponata, bacala, pasteles, and kugelhopf. Based on the popularity of his nonfiction books, including Cod (1997), expect demand. Mark Knoblauch
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The time frame of this novel is the late Reagan period, when drug sales were an engine of economic development for many striving Caribbean immigrants, and something affecting the previous generation of Jewish immigrants' scions. But this is merely one aspect of this multi-faceted mini-saga. Ultimately, this is, in the Seinfeldian sense, a novel about "nothing". But it's a vastly entertaining and engrossing "nothing".
Not being conversant with Kurlansky's other works, I was slightly shocked at his post-conclusion chapter of recipes for dishes mentioned in the plot. I would normally avoid food-themed novels like the plague. However this one could work with or without the recipes or the loving (and lustful) depictions of pastry-making in the "plot". Foodies can consider this aspect as a lagniappe- non-foodies can stop there, and not miss a thing.
The story is choppy, broken up into parts that follow separate characters throughout the book, sometimes bringing in new characters over half way through the book to follow. It can be very confusing to follow and pretty easy to get lost. The beginning is slowwwwww and I know slow doesn’t have that many w’s but it was a drag. The first 75 pages or so consisted of introducing all these characters, introducing Jews, Latinos, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans trying to be Puerto Ricans, Italians, drug dealers, suspected Nazi’s, and it goes on. It has a jumble of different storylines that you can easily lose track of. After the majority of characters got introduced the story picked up a bit, and Kurlanksy’s writing style really came through. He has a quirky, nonchalant attitude in his writing that make it fun, not to mention the mouth watering descriptions of delicious pastry.
I feel like the character development suffered from the amount of semi-main characters in book. I think certain characters definitely plateaued in their development and I think it’s Kurlansky’s fault for taking on such a long list of characters. It also doesn’t help that some characters are way more interesting than others. Reading this book a chore at times, reading about a character that doesn’t really have a whole lot going on in their life isn’t that thrilling.
Overall I’d give this book a 6 out of 10. It’s quirky, colorful, and Kurlansky’s style is quite intriguing but the book lacks balance, lacks structure. I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone who lived on the lower east side in the late 80’s, I’d think it would hit close to home and be a really interesting read but other than that I won’t recommend it to anybody. The whole time reading this story I was waiting for a pop. It felt like I was blowing up a balloon and I was waiting for a plot twist, or a bombshell but every time I left disappointed with a deflated piece of latex.
The story revolves around a middle-aged Jewish man and his family, who have lived in the neighborhood for several generations. It's hard to say exactly what the plot is; as I reflect on it, it seems mostly to deal with the man's guilt-ridden affair with a German baker's daughter. Also prevalent, plot-wise, are: a dilemma about selling the family business as the neighborhood grows and becomes more expensive; the travails of a Dominican (or is it Puerto Rican?) trying to get out of the drug business; a murderer stalking the local ATM machines; an uncle's search for the German baker's nazi past; and more.
I was impressed with Kurlansky's intimate knowledge about the neighborhood's ethnic cultures and characters, many of whom must have been far removed from his own American/European background. I lived in the neighborhood during the same period, and he brought forth here vivid details about people who I saw but interacted with only superficially. This seems to me to be the triumph of this book: its wonderland mix of ethnicity, whose unique apsects Kurlansky makes vivid. Stamaty's chaotic cover really nails this aspect of book, and the virtuoso narrator's uncanny & subtle characterizations in the audio version make it a listerner's delight.
Unfortunately, this may be the book's downfall too, as there are so many characters that I became confused... and with all the plot lines, the book loses any natural trajectory it might have had if Kurlansky had focused on fewer characters and plots. I might not have finished the book had I not gotten the audio version. Still, I enjoyed it, thought it illuminating and interesting, and certainly an accurate and heartfelt portrayal of a neighborhood that has, sadly, greatly changed since the 1980s.
Pros: If you're fascinated with NYC culture, then this is the book for you. Kurlansky has one of the best writing syles out there, this is the only thing that gives the book appeal (well...that and the tortes).
Cons: Limited appeal. The target audience for this is much much narrower than Kurlansky's previous books, and I was bored with the culture by about a third of the way through it. By two thirds of the way through it, it was really grating on me.
The star of the show: The tortes made at the Edelweiss. I kept looking those up on Wikipedia. Man, they look good. I may even take a shot at making one.
I don't get New Yorkers in the first place, but a lot of this book doesn't translate well. What's the problem? In the 80's Nathan could have taken the half million, bought a house three times the size of his apartment and lived on the front range for less than 100k (with a 2 car garage), then start a decent business with the other 400k. No worrying about crack dealers versus pot dealers, no worrying about crime rate, no worrying about private schools. All the "smarties" go by first names cause titles don't matter, its about what you can do, not the clothes you wear or the degree you have. That's why you see a 2000 dollar bike on top of a 200 dollar car in Colorado. Its what you do and how you live life. There it is, I think much of the west doesn't get why New Yorkers pour so much money into a life they don't seem to enjoy. Fortunately, they all haven't moved here .... yet.