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Prince Street

Last night, I took the 6 Train down to Bleecker Street. It was a beautiful evening, clear and just cool enough for a windbreaker. I love coming out of the subway at the corner of Houston and Lafayette Streets - it's so far from the Upper East Side where I live. Why, there's even a gas station! Walking down Lafayette Street, I can see the old police headquarters and the federal courthouse. At Prince Street, I turn left, and it's just a few steps to McNally Robinson, the lovely independent bookseller. I feel miles from home, but I've only walked, in total, three blocks.

Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan has just come out in paper, and he and his Random House editor, Daniel Menaker, had an open conversation about their working relationship in McR Café, at the east end of the bookshop. We learned Mr Shteyngart's daily routine. He is served breakfast in bed at about eleven. Then he boots up his laptop and - still in bed - writes until four, when he heads uptown for an hour of shrinkage. Then he gets together with friends and drinks to excess. One day a week, he substitutes teaching a creative writing class at Columbia for the shrinkage. (At least one of his students had come downtown for the event.) We learned that the writer went to college at what he called the Oberlin Institute for Special People. We learned that New York is really the only place where Mr Shteyngart does not feel that people are trying to kill him. At a recent reading in Houston, for example, the audience was very frosty about his take, in Absurdistan, on Halliburton, which is called "Golly Burton" by the novel's more ambitious prostitutes. Might Mr Shteyngart have chosen to provoke the irritation of Houston? Mr Menaker surmised as much.

Gary Shteyngart is a very funny guy - funnier in person, if you ask me, than he is on the page - and I advise you to seek him out if he comes to your town. Do not try to kill him.

Oh, almost forgot: the next book. We learned that Mr Shteyngart's next novel will be set in New York City. That's the good news. The bad news is that almost everyone will be illiterate, confined to grunts and gestures. And some people will be immortal. Sounds like great satire.


Come to think of it, I went to an event at McNally Robinson last week, too. Then it was to see Alain de Botton, whose The Architecture of Happiness has recently appeared. Instead of reading from his book, Mr de Botton gave a PowerPoint presentation of most of the illustrations in his book. Speaking with easy wit, he summarized the major points of the book so well that, when I looked at it later, I found much of the material to be familiar. The author was a delight to listen to. Relaxed, unflappable, he shared his interest in and thoughts about architecture with such a casual air that no points were driven home. Like all of Mr de Botton's book, The Architecture of Happiness has one main purpose: to coax you into paying attention to the world around you. While he spoke, I couldn't help looking past him, out the bookshop's windows, at Old St Patrick's, the first Roman Catholic cathedral in New York. Unlike most cathedrals, it is tucked away on side streets, and it is certainly smaller than most cathedrals. But it's a vital monument to the determination of a widely-despised faith to build a diocese in hostile territory. One has only to compare it to the cathedral in Baltimore (Maryland was initially a Catholic colony) to grasp the relative poverty of diocesan coffers in the early Nineteenth Century. I wondered what Mr de Botton would have made of it; I'm not sure that he even knew that it was there, standing behind him.


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Gary Shteyngart is indeed an extremely funny guy in person. Always worth attending his readings.

Evidently, there are some extremely deep catacombs under Old St. Patricks; I learned about them on a NYCTV short about secrets of New York. they actually looked more like bomb bunkers.

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