new york city

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

the transcriptionist

The Transcriptionist was not what I expected and I mean this in the best of ways. It is a New York City novel, but resides in unknown places and lives that have yet to be portrayed in fiction.* Lena is a transcriptionist at the New York Record–a position that seems a relic in our digital age. In 2003, the city is living in a time that seems both close and faraway to the present day reader. Post 9/11 concerns are red hot (the staff of the Record  are absurdly given “escape hoods” in case of further mass emergency) and the daily news cycles whirl around Lena as she sits alone on the eleventh floor transcribing recorded interviews and reports from abroad.

She lives in this shadow state, always reading the news she knows over the news that makes it into print, and not just reading the shadows, but also living in them, somewhere between waiting and searching. This is what chills her…

Lena lives alone in a room she rents where the sink is also in her room. She keeps to herself and even the one person, Russell, who speaks to her socially at work thinks her name is Carol (a mistake she leaves uncorrected). Lena is filled with words and language so much that her conversational skills are composed mostly of quotations.

But then everything changes. A news report on page 3 of the Record catches her eye. A woman is mauled to death by the lions at the Bronx Zoo one night. The death is a suspected suicide. Lena sees the woman’s photo and identifies her as the blind woman who spoke to her three days prior on the city bus. With a migraine, Lena didn’t pay the woman full attention, but now in death Lena is rapt.

The parallels that Lena finds between herself and the dead blind woman, begin to make her move out of the shadows. Words and language compose her life, but as she attempts to find more information over the death, she quietly begins to unravel the mundane life she had been living and the contradictions at the Record and the world around her.

In Lena, debut novelist Amy Rowland has constructed a character that is able to see beneath what has become everyday life. As a former transcriptionist herself, Rowland provides wonderful information and details on the goings-on of a major newspaper. She portrays a liminal space where technology and the human touch are still needed. The Recording Room where Lena works is still made up of audio tape, telephones, and people. Dictations are important and the accuracy of a person’s ear is paramount to correct copy. Lena is part of the Record‘s “institutional memory.”

Lena finds in the blind woman a person who can see more than anyone else. Before reading the short news report, Lena would have continued on in her mundane, liminal space of the shadows until she faded away and was forgotten. Instead, she wanted to learn things and in doing so, shook herself from the trappings of her solitary and almost obsolete life (and employment).

The Transcriptionist is a novel that finds its energy in the forgotten and unknowable. It is not the glamour of New York City that entices the reader, but the monotony of a single person’s everyday life and the subsequent search to find comfort and meaning. Lena finds her solutions in language. She is able to finally see other people’s failings in their use of language and reactions to it. We have our memories, but when we, too, are gone, it is language that is left to carry us away from being forgotten.

This novel will be released in the US on May 13, 2014 by Algonquin Books

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*Although, completely different NYC stories, part of me had a similar indulgent feeling when I read The Rules of Civility.


Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life


This week’s topic for the Weekly Photo Challenge is “Street Life”: a place reveals itself on its streets, from pedestrians strolling during lunch time, to performers entertaining tourists on sidewalks, to the bustle of local markets, and more….

A few years ago, I used to work up in Harlem on 125th Street. It is an area that is very busy, yet, also abandoned. There wasn’t much going on outside of my office building except the big construction pit on the north side of the street, the daytime mugging I once saw, and Bill Murray in a baseball cap standing outside the office. It is a strange intersection of bustling and abandonment, an active ruin. One summer, I decided to take my camera with me. I wanted to document the city streets and the people who pounded the pavement on 125th Street, which is also home to the Cotton Club. It is an area of greys and steel, but also one of bright colors in unexpected places.

**Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without a recommended reading list at the bottom. This is a literature blog (I hope!).

Harlem, 125th Street

Cotton Club

Harlem, 125th Street

Recommended Reading List for Harlem, 125th Street
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison; Harlem in the 1920s + jazz music
  • Invisible by Paul Auster; about ten blocks south of the Cotton Club, a tragic event takes place to snowball all of the novel’s characters
  • Open City by Teju Cole; roaming the streets of Manhattan
  • Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney; 1980s hedonistic NYC told in second-person
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolffe; racial tensions run high in 1980s NYC
  • Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger; we could argue over who the true phony is, but regardless this book captures Manhattan streets of the 194/50s

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The Weary Writer; or fuzzy eyes & tired brain syndrome

As of late, I have found myself with “tired eyes.” I define this as an overall tiredness in the eyeball region caused by reading too much (usually on a screen) and an inability to focus due to stress and lack of money. Yesterday, I knew I had to get some writing done because my entire weekend was essentially blown and I hadn’t gotten any useful work accomplished. So, when Monday came around, I was gung ho. Armed with my laptop, I made the march to the library to get some good hours in but then it happened. We finally were having some lovely days in NYC. I sat upon a bench to take a break and read. The library is uphill. About twenty minutes in, I thought to myself: nope, I shall drop off this computer and go on a field trip. I took a lovely trip uptown to Fort Tryon Park.


I found myself rested and when I awoke this morning, refocused (which was perfect). However, even with my Monday hooky, my fuzzy eye and unfocused brain has return at a breakneck speed. This has been happening lately and I would like to be rid of it. I am off now to take a lunch break and, perhaps, the weary writer will turn into the less alliterative focused and productive scribe. But for now I shall just look at this photo taken during my remedy for yesterday’s weary writer.


Federico García Lorca, Poet in New York

lorcaYou still have two days left to see the fantastic and free exhibition at the New York Public Library dedicated to Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s time he spent in NYC in 1929. Since April, a celebration of the writer has been going on in NYC. If you are unable to visit the exhibition, the Lorca in NY website is a plethora of illuminating images and information (the interactive map is worth a click alone but prepared to be distracted from any other business you were conducting–you were warned!).

The Lorca exhibition focuses on his time spent in NYC. He initially came to the US to study English at Columbia University but soon gave that up to work on his book of poetry. He communicated either in Spanish or in a less than stellar French. What I found most interesting about the exhibition was the fact that Lorca was so enthralled by Harlem. Usually, when reading works about Manhattan during this time period the lower part of the island gets the limelight with the upper neighborhoods being confined to the Harlem Renaissance. Lorca was a European who lived in a dormitory on Columbia’s campus. He was a hop, skip, and a jump a way from Harlem, a neighborhood that butts up against the university. He found friendship and inspiration from the people of Harlem and the neighborhood itself.

lorca2Besides having his words inspired by the city, the exhibition also exhibits Lorca’s artwork. It definitely had that Spanish Surrealism quality about it with its drooping figures and looping lines. Prior to his trip to NYC, Lorca was friends with Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel who had criticized his earlier poetry as being too traditional.

The exhibition is a lovely mash of Lorca’s letters to his family in Granada, artwork, information about his time spent at Columbia and NYC in general, his friendships with different writers in the city, and the overall influence New York had on him.

The exhibition is titled, “Back Tomorrow.” When handing in his manuscript for Poet in New York, Lorca left a note with these words to his Madrid publisher. Unfortunately, “he never returned. Weeks later, at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he was brutally murdered by fascist elements in Granada, his body thrown into an unmarked mass grave.” Like all book blurbs these day, the entire exhibition was haunting. I think this was due to the surreal portraits he created and his enthusiasm and longing for the city mixed with his unfortunate and brutal death. If you’re able to see it, go immediately before the exhibition closes!

Reading & Chatting at the Bridge Series

bridgeYesterday was all rain and chill in New York City. So what better way to spend a damp evening than to go to The Bridge Series event hosted by Goethe Insitut. The Bridge Series “is the first independent reading and discussion series in New York City devoted to literary translation.”

I was pleasantly surprise. I can be a tough critique when it comes to readings (meaning, normally they are incredibly boring). But these translators chose mighty fine selections and their discussion after the reading was quite interesting. The translators included Ross Benjamin, Isabel Fargo Cole, Tess Lewis, and Tim Mohr. All four are working from German to English.

The standout of this whole event was how exciting all of the selections were. If they are not already released, the novels will be available very soon this year in the US (the UK already has some available in translation). Also, for any Kafka aficionados out there, Ross Benjamin is currently working on a translation of Kafka’s complete Diaries.

There were two questions that most peaked my interest. The first being, what happens if the author includes a blatant error in the original. An example given was an author writing about New York City had listed Gansevoort Street as being down near the World Trade Center (when in reality, it is over west in the Meatpacking District). The original author did this because he liked the sound of the name. It was convenient that he is a contemporary author because the translator was able to discuss this point with him and it was subsequently corrected in the translation. But whether or not such a mistake should be corrected was discussed further with one of the most notorious errors: Frank Kafka putting a sword in the hand of the Statue of Liberty in his work, Amerika. 

The second question was about how contemporary German literature (and foreign lit as a whole) has changed recently and how does that apply to translating. The translators hit upon the fact that many references are no longer solely Germany/Austria/Switzerland based. They also incorporate many North American trends and concepts. The translators didn’t weigh on whether they thought this was a good or bad thing but they did note that they didn’t have to look up as many culture reference anymore.

All in all, I was delighted to go to last night’s Bridge Series. I recommend it. Not only do they cover German literature but other languages as well. You can visit their website for more information.

The Plight of the Doppelgänger Library

It sounds so more tragic than it actually is. Although, it is something that has driven me bonkers for almost a year. But before I continue let me take a step back. Last June, I packed up all of my few worldly possessions and chucked them into a storage unit. Got rid of my crummy apartment and left the country. I was gone for a handful of months, bouncing around, before I returned to New York City.

The majority of my storage unit is packed primarily with books (followed by in distant second, no doubt, by my various coats). I have still to find a permanent living situation. I’ve been subletting and I will continue to sublet in furnished apartments for the next couple of months. It has been doable this past year not having all of my clothes (except for those coats–how I miss my olive green parka!), but my books…that’s a whole other story.

Now, shall we return to the plight of the doppelgänger library? I have so many books (don’t we all?) and like previously mentioned, they are boxed away, alone, in my messy storage unit with nothing to keep them company but my coats and slow cooker. I own very little furniture, only a few wine glasses remain, but boxes and boxes labelled “books.” I wish I could retrieve them. There are so many I would like to read or at least look through. I’ve been avoiding bookshops like the plague so as not to buy duplicates (I already have multiple copies of Gravity’s Rainbow, a book I have never read and the reason for which I have multiples, we might get into at a later date).

Because I’ve been moving around a lot, it is not ideal either to be schlepping extra bits and pieces along with me (I live out of one large duffel bag). I’ve tried to take books from the library but, of course, one cannot write in these or keep them for that matter. I have successfully tried not to purchase ersatz replacements, but these doppelgängers have called to me and I have called back to them. I have perused the varying copies of The Master and Margarita that exists. Different translators, different cover designs! All the possibilities, but, yet I have refrained from giving in.

Right now, I just have a small stack that follows me (no hardcovers please). When I’m through with them, these books will also find their home in my storage unit. As I continue to live a transient life (both, at times, wanted and tiresome) and resist the itch of the doppelgänger library, I think to my copy of Bulgakov’s classic that is waiting for me once I become un-unemployed and permanent. I bought it used with a striking cover of glowing eyes and its pleasant surprise of a previous owner’s personal inscription on the first page,

To John,

My favorite carpenter…

Literary Festivals

Everyone likes a good literary festival, right? Well, sometimes I’m not sure. In NYC, I always get the impression that they are filled with academics and literati (this might be totally a syndrome of the 5 boroughs and not the rest of the country). Why doesn’t a more diverse audience attend events like these in the city? The only one that I know of that attracts a mixed crowd is the Brooklyn Book Festival. It’s sprawling with tables and panels both inside and outside.

I’ve been thinking about literary festivals recently because I will be participating in at least two in the next few months (hence, the reason for my inconsistent and lighter blog posts recently).  I am 103% sure that the first one will be swarming with academics which can be a letdown but I hope a good crowd attends the panels and soirees.

A great thing about literary festivals is you don’t have to even be familiar with any of the participants. They are a great way to learn about new writers, trends, genres, publishing houses, etc. and if there is an author you like, it’s also a great way to hobnob.

And let’s not forget about the free wine!

post script, if you have a favorite book festival(s), please leave the info in the comments section; I’m collecting a list so everyone can have these resources. 

New York City as my Bookstore

Like most book lovers, I have an obscene amount of books littered throughout my apartment. I’m always telling myself: “No more books! Use the library! Don’t spend another dime on a book!” Alas, this isn’t always the case, especially, when you live in New York City. We have great bookstores and libraries but we also have Mephistopheles lurking on many corners tempting me with $2 books. Once, I even talked a guy into giving me a book in exchange for a couple of quarters.

Well, needless to say, I succumbed. I made off with copies of Crime & Punishment and The Secret Agent, each for $2.

My December/January-Books-to-Read-because-it’s-too-Cold-Outside list keeps getting bigger and bigger!

“Haiku Traffic Signs Bring Poetry To NYC Streets”

NYC seems to have an interesting way of keeping our citizens safe while traversing the busy streets: haiku traffic signs. They are in all five boroughs and are trying to raise awareness against our aggressive tactics to get from one side of the road to the other. I’m not sure how super effective they will be but it’s always nice to have a little literature/poetry in one’s life.

Maybe they will make

Fun little postcards or book

Out of these road signs.