The best books if you’re delusional and want to pretend you live in 1940s Manhattan

Robert Trachtenberg Author Of Red-Blooded American Male: Photographs
By Robert Trachtenberg

The Books I Picked & Why

The Stories of John Cheever

By John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever

Why this book?

Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, this is the gold standard - it doesn’t get any better than this. Cheever is to the short story what Edward Hopper is to painting: an absolute master at conveying the inner life of his characters, and to quote Philip Roth, “an enchanted realist.” I know many people say they don’t like short stories because there isn’t enough character/plot development, but these stories are like a beautifully engineered watch - everything you need is there.


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Short Stories: Five Decades

By Irwin Shaw

Short Stories: Five Decades

Why this book?

Like Cheever, Shaw was a fellow New Yorker contributor but his work is grittier than Cheever’s and was best summed up in The New York Times: “[Shaw] has a primitive skill possessed by very few sophisticated men.” Winner of two O. Henry awards, I would say he is the “meat and potatoes” short story master - but it’s Prime USDA.


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The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

By Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Why this book?

Another Pulitzer Prize winner, but this time there’s nothing short about this story - it’s epic! To quote the flap: “A young escape artist and budding magician named Joe Kavalier arrives on the doorstep of his cousin, Sammy Clay. While the long shadow of Hitler falls across Europe, America is happily in thrall to the Golden Age of comic books, and in a distant corner of Brooklyn, Sammy is looking for a way to cash in on the craze. He finds the ideal partner in the aloof, artistically gifted Joe, and together they embark on an adventure that takes them deep into the heart of Manhattan, and the heart of old-fashioned American ambition.” A great, page-turning pleasure ride.


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Manhattan, When I Was Young

By Mary Cantwell

Manhattan, When I Was Young

Why this book?

This is an elegant, finely written memoir by a former writer and editor at Vogue, Mademoiselle and the New York Times that offers an interesting hook: her story is set in five different apartments in Manhattan as her life progresses from single working girl to professional and personal success and hardships including motherhood and divorce. If you’ve ever dreamed of working at a magazine in New York City - particularly during this golden period, then this is the book for you.


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The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman

By Leo Lerman

The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman

Why this book?

I’m not going to lie: this is not for everyone. You really have to be interested - and conversant - in the cultural world of post-war Manhattan (and beyond) for this to sink in. Lerman, who was features editor at Vogue and editor at Vanity Fair among other jobs, was at the center of it all. I could name drop from the book for days, but trust me, everyone from Marlene Dietrich to William Faulkner were regular guests at his parties. More importantly, his position allowed him to champion the careers of artists in every field - writers, singers, painters, etc. An astute social critic, the book offers a dazzling look at a very specific time and place in American culture. Surprisingly, I found that passages regarding his adolescence to be among the most lyrical and moving.


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