Books on GIF #32 — 'The Button Thief of East 14th Street' by Fay Webern


Books on GIF is a weekly review and discussion of random books told with the help of GIFs. We'll cover fiction, nonfiction and the occasional graphic novel.

This Sunday's book is 'The Button Thief of East 14th Street' by Fay Webern.

Button Thief

This is an important week for Books on GIF because 'The Button Thief' is the first book sent to me by a publisher to review. Thanks to the folks at Sagging Meniscus Press!

Those of us who really love books and finding new voices in literature should strive to support independent publishers, because that's where you'll find gems like 'The Button Thief.' It's a memoir of growing up in a Jewish immigrant family on the Lower East Side during the Depression and the World War II years, back when gentrification was called slum clearance and came with a wrecking ball.

Young Fay's world revolves around the Lavanburg Homes, a development built in the 1920s that was to serve as a model for low-income housing for working people. It was erected on a street that no longer exists — Goerck Street — which was consumed by the subsequent construction of the Baruch Houses. Her story evolves in a series of vignettes (one of which lends its name to the title of the book), starting before she was born with a harrowing tale of the Russian ancestors for whom she was named, and continuing through the sights, sounds and smells of a neighborhood almost completely lost to history.

Who still remembers there was a chicken market in the Williamsburg Bridge?

Or that you could get a real egg cream at more places than just Gem Spa?

Webern has many great stories about growing up, from her discovery of modern dance in a class held in the Lavanburg Homes' basement to her finding romantic love on the building's roof. There are also the fascinating tales of her family's struggles for a better life, which involve arranged marriages, plucking chickens and button thievery. But what I found most interesting was her almost complete lack of nostalgia for those times.

And it was refreshing, not only because I mostly disdain nostalgia, but because her story was so interesting on its own it didn't need any syrupy goo caused by pangs for yesteryear. Some writers get drunk on nostalgia.

From Webern, you get no sense that she pines for those years or that things were better way back when. They just ... were what they were. And that's OK, because it's important to have a clear-eyed chronicle of history — history that wasn't so long ago and that my grandmother still remembers — in a city like New York. Because New York can be forgetful, and a city, probably more than any other, where you can't ever really go home again. Home gets torn down and becomes something else. The people move away and get replaced by others who have no idea who or what came before them. This is a city that's been drawn and redrawn beyond counting.

It is what it is. Webern is just one of the main characters of this book, the city being the other, and anyone who cares about New York's history — from its streets to its buildings to its immigrants — should read it.

My rating:

'The Button Thief of East 14th Street' was published by Sagging Meniscus Press in 2016. 311 pages.

What's next? In the coming weeks I'll review 'The Days of Abandonment' by Elena Ferrante, 'White Teeth' by Zadie Smith and 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara, among others.

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Thanks for reading!*


* Thanks especially to Donna for copy editing this review!