Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the Country of Brooklyn by Peter Golenbock

Aloha, everyone! I'd apologize for my absence, but I think I already did that. I've been busy spending all my savings on Christmas presents and car repairs, and in a few weeks, I'll be busy spending the rest of my savings on a new car (unless there's one in my driveway on Christmas morning with a gigantic bow on it - ha! That's a nice fantasy...) and a new laptop (as for the old one? hard drive failing). Luckily I've still got my dad's relic (it runs Windows 98! YouTube is phasing out its browser! Ha!) to type out the occasional review and to hack away futilely at the backlog in my Google Reader (even with the occasional comment so everyone will know I'm still here...somewhere). Amid the strife that this month has brought me, I've also been engaging in lots of Christmasy fun in NYC and at day long Christmas parties and attending a delightful "holiday brunch" at work and, of course, listening to Christmas music nearly non-stop and have thus managed to regenerate a good deal of holiday cheer that I thought was lost forever from a week or few of almost laughable bad fortune which prompted my loving father to rename me "black cloud."

And today, I have even more reason to celebrate because I've finished it. My arch-nemesis review copy. Peter Golenbock's epically huge oral history of Brooklyn, In the Country of Brooklyn, which I so foolishly requested from LibraryThing Early Reviewers not realizing how ginormous it would be. Now this book has been skulking about in various states of "readness" for probably more than a year, serving as the considerable base of most of my "reading now" piles that I'm not actually reading. As a Christmas gift to myself, I decided to finally get this monkey off my back (or, well, at least off my bedroom floor) and give my sad and pathetic reading page totals a boost for the year with its well beyond considerable 663 pages. The two of us have such a long history, that I almost don't know how I'll finally review it, but I think I'll manage....

In the Country of Brooklyn is Peter Golenbock's compilation of dozens and dozens and dozens and possibly a few more dozen interviews he conducted with various residents of Brooklyn throughout its last almost-century of history. Through the spoken experience of various average and important personages of Brooklyn through the years, Golenbock attempts to give us a sense of an exciting and progressive place, home to the entire spectrum of immigrants that eventually found their way to the United States, that spawned a variety of political activists, sports heroes, as well as an impressive array of cultural contributions. Golenbock uses his interviews to comment on Brooklyn's struggle and ultimate willingness to integrate its diverse population, the struggle to get government to recognize and respond to the needs of its people, its present efforts to rejuvenate parts of the community that have fallen into disuse and disrepair, and, given its length, much, much more.

Golenbock must have taken an incredible amount of time to speak with his many subjects and transcribe their words, and it shows. This book is packed with the thoughts and memories of countless people connected in some way to Brooklyn. These interviews make up the meat of the book. Most are interesting, and many are downright compelling. In addition, there are past and present pictures of Booklyn as well as of each of the interviews' subjects which is another definite addition to this book.

That said, if you're going to read this book, read it for the interviews. Golenbock's background and assorted "filler" information is at times, unfortunately, downright painful to read. Golenbock's wild generalizations and obvious political intrusions will bother any serious historian and any average person who happens to disagree with his views. The book's organization is also sorely lacking. While the interviews are a pleasure to read, Golenbock seems to struggle to make them coalesce around any sort of main point. Indeed, some of the interviewees, while interesting, seem to have only the most fleeting of connections with Brooklyn which, it seems, Golenbock might have been attempting to include in an effort to define Brooklyn in a certain way that doesn't quite seem to pan out. Instead what we have is a massive tome that, once you've passed the midway point, seems to drag on to some uncertain destination that is never reached. With a good edit for page count and organization and perhaps an overhaul of Golenbock's background information, In the Country of Brooklyn, with all its potent first person accounts, could have packed quite a punch, but as it stands, it will leave real history buffs wishing for something a little more substantial.

Disclaimer: In the Country of Brooklyn was sent to me at no cost by Harper Collins/William Morrow in conjunction with LibraryThing Early Reviewers.


  1. Sorry to see you've had car and computer troubles. Ugh! What a way to end the year. I think I'll skip In the Country of Brooklyn. Thanks for your review.

  2. All of my savings is going to my husband's dental bill and the ticket he got this month. I'm glad I did all my Christmas shopping before we knew about those expenses. :-(

    I'm sorry to hear about your car and computer. Hopefully you can find good deals on both. I had to replace my computer a couple of months ago. My husband's been using my old one, which was a good idea at the time, but not so good now that he's grown used to using a laptop and the old one really is ready to bite the dust. LOL He's holding off on the purchase for now. I told him to try and hold out until his birthday at least. That'll be in June. Then we should know how many more cuts I'll be facing in regards to the budget crunch at work--and whether I'll still have a job. Sorry. Didn't mean to go on and on like that.

    I am glad you've been able to enjoy the Christmas season so far even despite all that.

    Congratulations on finishing In the Country of Brooklyn! I found myself looking at page numbers when requesting a couple of books through LT, then had to mentally slap myself. I already tend to shove the long books to the back burner, and I feel so guilty about that. I'm reading one right now that's over 600 pages.

    I hope you have a great week, Megan.

  3. Kathy - Yeah, it's sure been a drag, but I guess if it had to happen, I'm at least glad it seems to be letting up a little in time for Christmas!

    Wendy - Gee, the hubs is pretty expensive to have around, huh? ;-) I'm sorry to hear about the cuts at work. I really hope things get better and you remain employed (and that your old computer will hold out for a few more months at least!).

    I don't mind a long book when it's good and engaging, but when it's non-fiction and it starts to get a little dull and draggy, that's the kiss of death for me with them. In general I try not to think about number of pages too much, but in this case, I wish I would have had the sense to check. Not in my wildest dreams would have expected it to be *so* long. Maybe long, but not like this!

    Anyhow - I hope things start looking up a bit for you, too, and that you'll have a great week and happy holidays despite the crummy stuff.

  4. So sorry to hear about car and computer problems, especially this time of year.

    Wishing you the nicest holiday ever. Happy reading and blogging in 2010.

  5. Congrats on finishing the book! It sounds interesting, if a bit (ha!) on the long side.

    I hope you ended up having a wonderful holiday and that Santa brought you that new laptop and car you deserve (not likely, but I can wish, right?).