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Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City
Anne-Marie Cantwell & Diana diZerega Wall
Yale University Press
374 pp.


Late in August of this year, the prepublication galley copy of a new book found its way into my hands--an archaeological history of New York City. At the time, it seemed like the sort of mildly interesting read one might get around to in the thick of a couple of cold and dreary, housebound winter days.

In the wake of the events of September 11, however, the book, with its iconic cover photo--the New York skyline dominated by the twin towers of the World Trade Center--suddenly, surreally became itself an artifact of New York's history (although the final cover design coincidentally, according to the publisher, features a different view of the city). And the title, Unearthing Gotham, seemed eerily timely as the news brought footage of giant machines and small men digging their way through a mountain of dust and rubble.

To read the book now is to find both unexpected comfort in historical perspective and powerful resonance in details that only two months ago would have passed by hardly noticed. In this highly readable account, thankfully free of the unintelligible academic jargon that plagues so much writing in the humanities these days, the authors, Anne-Marie Cantwell and Dianna diZerega Wall, trace what the archaeological record tells about the peopling of the area that is now New York City, from the arrival of the earliest indigenous inhabitants roughly 11,000 years ago through the growth of a modern city in the 19th century.

When those first hunter-gatherers arrived in the wake of the retreat of the last ice age, the land that would one day become a seaside port was far inland still, and would remain that way for thousands of years yet as the vast, melting ice caps slowly filled the oceans. One of the most astonishing details of this distant piece of New York's story is that evidence of these early Paleoindians--ancient stone tools called "Clovis points"--was first discovered in the 1950s by the eleven-year-old son of an amateur archaeologist, sticking out of some newly-disturbed clay on the site of a trash-strewn oil tank farm on Staten Island. The amazing coincidence of this find is mirrored throughout the book in a series of lucky discoveries that helped advance the archaeological record of the city.

What we know of the millennia of inhabitation by indigenous peoples is limited, the authors admit, but from the available evidence, Cantwell and Wall are at pains to point out the inaccuracy of the myth of a "virgin land," a tabula rasa awaiting the first European settlers. This region, rich in wildlife and, increasingly, the abundant resources of the sea, was long-settled when the Europeans arrived, and there are tantalizing hints from the surviving artifacts that those who lived here first had rich and varied cultures.

Nevertheless, New York's modern history would fall into the hands--or more accurately, be seized by--the waves of European settlers to come. When the first Dutch arrived in the early 17th century, the resident Munsee, who did not share the European notion of private ownership, apparently welcomed them generously, sharing food and knowledge with immigrants ill-prepared for life in the wilderness. In turn, the Munsee soon reaped a harvest of disease, dispossession and death. Smallpox, syphilis and other European imports decimated the population, augmented by intermittent incidents of wholesale slaughter of entire communities. To this reader, it seemed instructive at this time to recall that European Christians have their own long and shameful history of inhumanity.

With the Europeans came an increasing trove of material possessions, as well as written records, that make the reconstruction of the last five hundred years of New York's story far easier for archaeologists. At the same time, however, New York is a city forever tearing itself down and remaking itself, and an island almost entirely paved over and populated by skyscrapers offers limited opportunities for digging about. Still, the authors offer fascinating insights gleaned from archaeological excavations to describe New York's transition from Dutch rule to English colony to modern American city.

Reading the book now, I was struck by the degree to which New York, for all its triumphant brashness, is a city with a history of sorrows, from the destruction of the Munsee to the suffering of African slaves to the epidemics of cholera and other diseases.

Yet there is a strange comfort in recognizing that the span of any one human life, however fraught with pain and tragedy, is but an insignificant mark on the long line of history. And in reading that history as rendered in our material goods, I was reminded of so much recent news coverage on the detritus from the World Trade Center--family photographs, business cards, a shoe--each a pointer to an entire life. In the artifacts we leave behind, we tell our stories.

--Caroline Kettlewell

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San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets
David Meltzer (Editor)
City Lights Books
364 pp.


If you fancy the Beat movement because you think you look good in a beret and goatee or because you like to say 'Daddio' while reclining in your favorite Starbucks, San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets is definitely not the book for you. While it's a testament to the Beat movement's shelf-life, it is also a resounding condemnation of what its editor, David Meltzer, describes as the contemporary oversimplification of the movement. "The reclamation and reinvention of the Beats and Beat literature in the nineties," he writes,


is an international phenomena that at once recognizes the dissident spirit of the Beats and removes it from historical complexity, makes it safe, and turns it into products and artifacts. The more removed from history's discomfort, the easier it is to imagine and consume history without taking on its weight. The books of that time recirculate in new hipper covers, along with all the dreadful accoutrements of the postwar middle-class suburban diaspora, the kitsch and crapola. It's the "look" that dot-commers yen to trophy their nouveaux pads with. It's more to do with style than bile. Fictive history can be owned and displayed as the fifties' ultimate product: stuff. Both radically disruptive stuff and suburban kitsch are easily embraced by the neo-con techno-cart. The pervasive postwar advertising seduction of selling standardized goods to consumers as an act of claiming individuality and choice deeply saturated itself into the American psyche.


Stick it to the man, Davidio!

The core of San Francisco Beat appeared thirty years ago as a mass market paperback under the title The San Francisco Poets. It contained interviews with Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, William Everson and Lew Welch, as well as a statement from Richard Brautigan (who declined to be interviewed). Its new form is decidedly bigger and more diverse. In addition to 1999 interviews with Ferlinghetti and McClure (the only two original interview subjects who are alive today), it now also includes recent interviews with eight other poets, including Diane di Prima, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, as well as two short but informative remembrances of Everson and Rexroth.

The subjects on hand are diverse, ranging from questions that map the poets' individual artistic growth to more abstract questions that get at the heart of poetry and what it can and should accomplish in a troubled world. Ferlinghetti is particularly strident in his blending of politics and poetry (anyone surprised?), both in the 1969 and 1999 interviews. Indeed, if anything, he's more outspoken today. "It's a technophiliac consciousness," he says in the more recent interview,


that seems to be sweeping the world. And more than's that huge all-engulfing corporate monoculture that is sweeping around the world. It's the most boring culture imaginable. It makes everything look the same....Countries that were under dictatorships, like in Central Europe--the first thing they do when they get liberated is rush to adopt the worst features of American culture--like the automobile and the television....


San Francisco Beat is often fascinating, and it's hard to find a single page that fails to rile, rant or cajole us all to accept a more complicated, self-aware world view. Occasionally, it's more ranting than cajoling, but hey: if you dig the style, you have to take the bile, Daddio.

--Charlie Onion

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The World Below
Sue Miller
Alfred A. Knopf
275 pp.



Sue Miller's The World Below opens poignantly in the past, with a grandmother traveling by carriage to her grown daughter's funeral and silently rehearsing the speech she's prepared to ask her son-in-law to allow her two granddaughters to live with her, rather than with him. The pace is calculatedly slow, and Miller's writing is beautifully lyrical and evocative: "Imagine it: a dry, cool day, the high-piled cumulus clouds moving slowly from northwest to southeast in the sky, their shadows following them across the hay fields yet to be cut for the last time this year." The overall effect is quite striking, and while the story is undeniably sad, it is oddly soothing in its rhythms.

Only in the next chapter do we learn that much of the novel is set in the present. Somewhat sadly, the story of the funeral and the grandmother's over-rehearsed bid to gain custody of her grandchildren is itself only a brief story told by a woman to her own grandchildren. The woman who tells it, we learn, is the older child in the story, and as the novel proper opens, both she and her sister have died, and her two grown grandchildren (Catherine and Lawrence) are arranging for the handling of the inherited estate.

At the center of the estate is the grandmother's house in Vermont, and as it happens, Catherine, a fifty-two-year-old schoolteacher, is ending her second marriage and looking for a place to recover emotionally. So--yes, that's right--Catherine inevitably decides to take a six-month sabbatical from her San Francisco job and travel East for a round of pensive introspection and, more unexpectedly, an extended reappraisal of her dead grandmother's own early adulthood. As Catherine discovers while reading her grandmother's diaries, none of us, no matter how old or seemingly settled, is without a treasure trove of guarded secrets or lost desires in what one character eloquently calls our lost, submerged history.

Miller sets up convenient parallels between Catherine and the grandmother's stories (Catherine cared for her mentally ill mother, just as Georgia cared for her cancer-stricken mother, for instance). But the potential heavy-handedness of these plot devices is erased by a far more complicated, beautifully nuanced quality of sadness, of emptiness and unrequited desire that draws the two separate eras and stories together.

The book won't leave readers without regrets. Gliding through Catherine's easily read first-person account, for example, one can't help wishing that Miller had offered more of the omniscient, complicated narrative she established in the opening chapter (and to which she returns too infrequently in flashbacks). Catherine's account is fine, as far as it goes, and she should resonate beautifully among Miller's loyal readers. But Miller has a sizeable skill with omniscient accounts, and her even-handed work with the various complicated characters she offers there is especially strong, I think.

This is a heartfelt, decidedly non-ironized novel, and readers looking for a good cozy book for winter reading should certainly be satisfied with it. But readers who pick up on the subtle references to Thomas Mann's masterpiece, The Magic Mountain (Catherine's grandmother is sent to a secluded, relatively liberated TB hospital in the country, for example), will find Miller's work is most often far more grounded and prosaic than the allusions might imply. The real beauty of Miller's work lies in her eye for patient detail, her character development and the sophisticated way she moves between the book's generations. She does manage to achieve some stunningly powerful moments of transcendent beauty, though, and the best may come when the teenaged Catherine discovers a town underwater (it had been the victim of a dam project) while fishing with her grandfather.


It's so...weird." I leaned over and watched the shifting images. "But it's kid of magical, isn't it? And sad."

"Well, of course you're right. It is. Sad, and beautiful too. As many sad things are."

I looked for a long time. Behind me I could hear the occasional slow ticking of my grandfather's reel as he gently pulled the line this way or that. "Think of it, Grandpa," I said. "Think about the fishes swimming through the places where people used to live."


It made me think of my mother somehow--the lostness of the world down there, the otherness of it. It was like being able to look at memory itself. I felt a kind of yearning for everything past, everything already gone in my life.


It's a stunning moment, and the image of the underwater town--so hauntingly beautiful and original--should resonate powerfully long after the reader has forgotten the references to Hans Castorp and his happy respite on the magic mountain.

--Daphne Frostchild

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Half a Life
V.S. Naipaul
Alfred A. Knopf
211 pp.



While his travel books remain his most enduring work, V.S. Naipaul's new novel, Half a Life, is serendipitously well-timed to introduce him to the new audience he should receive after being awarded the Nobel Prize last month. It's short, it's highly readable, and it explores many of the key issues he has raised over the course of his twenty-four-book-long career. And perhaps most promisingly, it opens with the sort of seemingly innocent question that can carry a reader deep into the text before the answer is fully given.

Why, Willie Chandran wants to know, is his middle name Somerset?

The short answer (Naipaul takes thirty-five wonderful pages to answer it adequately) is that Willie's father is popularly considered the spiritual source for W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, and in recognition of the relative fame and fortune this brought him (he was, until Maugham met him, in serious trouble with his family and local authorities), he gave his only son the middle name 'Somerset.'

Of course, that's only the short answer. The long answer, if I were the sort of reviewer who gives away a beautifully intricate novel's details, would include the father's link to Mahatma Gandhi, his efforts to reject his Brahmin status by marrying outside of his caste and his son's reactions to his father's perceived limitations. But I'm not that sort of reviewer, am I?

As strong as the stories of Willie's name and his father's misguided travails are, they represent only a small part of a book that falls pointedly into three globe-hopping sections. The locales will be familiar to Naipaul aficionados: the first section is set in India, the second is set in London, and the third section is set in Africa. But it's not merely a change of scenery that drives the transitions: as he moves the story from India to London, Naipaul subtly changes his writing style as well. While the Indian section's voice draws on a metaphor- and fable-driven oral culture, the London section, in which Willie attends college and entertains the possibility that he might become a writer, is marked by a more traditional, detail-laden literary voice. (Like Naipaul, who also traveled to England for college, Willie writes stories for BBC radio broadcasts and has a short story collection published. Click here to read WAG's review of Naipaul's letters from this period.) Indeed, the London section reads like a portrait of the artist as a young man: Willie shifts, self-consciously, from an oral culture to a literary one, and in the process he learns to speak (and write) in a new 'language.'

In all three sections, Naipaul explores (as he has throughout his career) how colonialism uncomfortably brings together divergent cultures (Anglo-Indian, Portuguese-African, etc.) and demonstrates how hard it is to escape cultural definitions. "It was strange when you got to see it," Willie says in the African section, "those two different worlds side by side: the big estates and the concrete buildings, and the African world that seemed less consequential but was everywhere, like a kind of sea. It was like a version of what--in another life, as it seemed--I had known at home." The central problem for Naipaul's characters is the trouble they face trying to escape the cultural determinism forced onto their notion of who, precisely, they are. We are, happily or unhappily, defined by the society we inherit, and true individualism--defining yourself without cultural referents (something Willie wants desperately to do)--is a chimera, it seems. Culture is fate, and on the individual level, we each of us can lay claim to only half a life; the other half belongs indelibly to our inherited culture(s).

That Naipaul can cover so much territory--both thematically and literally-- without ever making his lean, economical text feel hurried is a testament to his storytelling skills.

Highly recommended for Naipaul's faithful readers as well as for novices who, for whatever reason, haven't found their way to him already (you're in for a misanthropic treat).

--Charlie Onion

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