After listening to Sonia Sotomayor handle the crowd of white boys, you may want to gain some insight into the streets - and a sense of the place - where her Latina wisdom was formed. Hence, my reading list.
You'll note that some of the books were written before she was born. That doesn't matter. The life experience she talked about applies across the generational tide of the Bronx; the language shifts, the declensions change, the wisdom remains.
You can see from even this short list that the Bronx doesn't get the creative credit it deserves; its flashier sibling boroughs -- Manhattan or newly-hip Brooklyn - command the immigrant Olympics.
But the doughty, resilient Bronx has more than its share of Pulitzers, Academy Awards, and other signifiers of literary and cinematic ambition. Here's a quick reading and viewing list that captures the spirit, contradictions and progression of the borough.
Initially, in the early part of the last century, the Bronx was often an immigrant's second stop. The percentage of Russian Jews who lived in Manhattan dropped from 81% to 40% between 1900 and 1920; in that period the percentage of lived in the Bronx leaped from around 1% to 18%. The Bronx was their Scarsdale.
By the time Sonia Sotomayor's family moved in, many of the Jews had exited; she was part of a large Puerto Rican influx for whom the Bronx was the first stop.
So here goes:
"Bronx Accent: A Literary And Pictorial History of the Borough" by Lloyd Ultan and Barbara Unger
This is a good place to start for the borough novitiate. It begins with the Colonial period, but moves forward at a nice clip to include fiction, non-fiction and poetry from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Sholom Aleichem, Grace Paley, Cynthia Ozick, James Baldwin, E. L. Doctorow, and others who lived in or wrote about the place.
As "The New York Observer" says (with somewhat strained lyricism) "Like some ingenious choral arrangement, the book contains scores of voices recounting, in fact and fiction, how life was lived in the Bronx from colonial times to the end of the twentieth century."
"Was it Heaven Or Hell" by Mark Twain
Twain rented the Wave Hill estate from 1901-1903, because his sick wife needed to be close to her New York doctors. He wrote "Was it Heaven or Was it Hell?" in the Bronx, but to the best of our knowledge it wasn't about the D Train, since the subway did not reach the Bronx until 1905.
"The Wanderers," Richard Price.
Richard Price, a chronicler of jazzed-up, shot-up, methed-up urban depth and despair in his novels and screenplays - including the rifle-speed dialogue of "The Wire - grew up in a housing project in the northeast Bronx, not far from Sonia Sotomayor. (The press gets it way wrong when they say she grew up "in the shadow of Yankee Stadium.")
His first novel, "The Wanderers" - written he was 24 - follows a gang in the 1960s Bronx. William Burroughs, not exactly a blurb whore, said it was "A deeply moving account of confused and spiritually underprivileged youth."
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City" by Jonathan Mahler
The late and much-missed Howard Cosell uttered those words of dignified desperation during a Yankee game in 1977, and they came to capture the out-of-control death spiral of the city in that summer. It's a period oft used as the book-end to our current scrubbed burg: a gentrified, luxurified, sanitized, soy-latte-ized New York.
The book weaves together the glorious insanity of those months of scorch: the "Son of Sam" murders; the blackout and arson and looting it provoked; and the World Series the Yankees won, despite, in the words of Publisher's Weekly, "the collective histrionics of owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin and outfielder Reggie Jackson."
Four years after Howard Cosell's grand summarization, this 1981 movie about a police station in the South Bronx became a metaphor for everything dangerous and intractable about the borough. "Fort Apache", is what officers call their police station, and as the poster bleakly put it: "No cowboys. No Indians. No cavalry to the rescue. Only a cop." Japanese tourists used to come by bus to see "Fort Apache; today, the South Bronx is nearly suburbanized.
Underworld, by Don DeLillo.
DeLillo was born in the Bronx, but he's not prone to nostalgic schmooze about his childhood and immigrant Italian parents. When Tom LeClair interviewed the writer for "The Atlantic", he was handed an engraved card reading "I DON'T Want to Talk About It."
Talk no, write yes. DeLillo's post-modern masterpiece, "Underworld", is bound up in the borough; the narrative lurches backward until it lands on the Bronx in 1951.
"City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder," by Herman Wouk
Wouk is one of those mid-century Book-of-the-Month Clubbish novelists who's as desperately out of favor (and fashion) as lime jello. "The Caine Mutiny" made his reputation, but three years before that he published "City Boy", whose subtitle reveals the author's literary pretensions.
Nowhere near as bitterly raw as "Call it Sleep," the book depicts a Bronx that is tough but sit-com worthy, with protective immigrant parents, business mishigas, and a summer-camp set piece.
Augie March it isn't, and while time has dwindled its characters to Borscht Beltian stick figures, its echoey evocation of an era has it charms. And any novel with a character named "Yishy Gabelson" can't be missed.
"South by South Bronx," by Abraham Rodriguez.
A worth-reading contemporary, noirish, post-modern novel with multiple story lines - an NYPD Detective's search for a drug dealer, terrorism, Leni Riefenstahl, Anne Sexton. The Daily News said it "takes the Bronx-born writer's longtime concerns about Puerto Rican identity and street-level realism and meshes them with the structure of a classic pulp fiction narrative."
"Bronx Primitive," by Kate Simon
Kate Simon has plunged off the radar, and that's a shame. Her New York Times obit called her an "acclaimed memoirist" - largely based on this book, but the poor dear even lacks a Wikipedia page (where's her publisher?) "Bronx Primitive" is a must-read, a classic in the sensitive-child-of-immigrants-in-a-harsh-environment genre.
One of the most culturally complete surveys of hip-hop. Publishers Weekly wrote that "Chang shows how hip-hop arose in the rubble of the Bronx in the 1970s, when youth unemployment hit 60%-80%; traces the music through the black-Jewish racial conflicts of 1980s New York to the West Coast scene and the L.A. riots; and follows it to the Kristal-soaked, bling-encrusted corporate rap of today."
"Act One," by Moss Hart
This is a classic theater autobiography. Hart was born in the Bronx, but couldn't wait to get out. He recalls "My feet were embedded in the upper Bronx, but my eyes were set firmly towards Broadway."
He writes movingly of his Aunt Kate, who introduced him to the theater despite his father's wishes, and describes going to "Saturday matinees at the local stock company, and a little later to touring companies at the Bronx Opera House." Yes, really, seriously, a Bronx Opera House.
"The Genuis," by Theodore Dreiser
Not many know that the author of "American Tragedy" lived in the Bronx. He came as a restorative; the outrage that "Sister Carrie" provoked caused a nervous breakdown, and he settled in the village of Kingsbridge, which he described as follows:
"This village, set down among green hills...was one of the fairest and most pleasing pictures of earth that I have ever witnessed. It was a quiet old place, bereft by the flight of time...From the depot as you dismounted from the train a winding, tree-shaded road led up across Broadway..." Yes, that's our Bronx."
The novel "The Genius", which was published after his death, draws inspiration from these bucolic years.
The poet never set foot in the Bronx, nor wrote about. However, when anti-Semitic fervor in Germany would not permit a statue of him from being erected - even though he converted - it was moved to the Bronx. Here"s a photo.