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When the World

Brooklyn Bugle Book Club: When the World Was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney

March 14, 2015

When I was in Mrs. Blalock’s 12th grade English class at Robinson High School in Tampa, I was required to give a book report every six weeks. Mrs. Blalock said students must begin each report by saying why they had read the book. With a tip of the hat to my still loved though long deceased teacher, I’ll begin this with a disclosure: I read this novel in part because the author is the daughter of a friend, neighbor, and fellow Grace Church parishioner. “In part” because another reason for my reading it is that it’s set in the neighborhood I’ve called home for the last almost 32 years, Brooklyn Heights, though at a time long before I came here; indeed partly before I was born.

The story begins on VJ Day, August 14, 1945 (this is the date Japan’s unconditional surrender was announced in the U.S.; Japan did not sign surrender documents until September 3, which is now the official VJ Day). Wally Baker and her mother, Stella Wallace Baker (Wally’s full name is Beatrice Wallace Baker) go out into the pandemonium filling even the streets of staid Brooklyn Heights. Stella is taking Wally to the nearby house of Stella’s parents, Waldo and Gigi, who are both physicians, as is Stella. As the day progresses, we are introduced to Waldo’s and Gigi’s housekeeper, Loretta Walker, an African American woman who also serves as Wally’s caretaker, and to Wally’s closest friend, Ham, who is Loretta’s son. We are also, in conversation, made aware of William Niederman, a PhD in mathematics and the college roommate of Stella’s husband and Wally’s father, Rudy, who, at Rudy’s urging by telegram from the South Pacific, becomes a boarder in the spare bedroom of Stella’s and Wally’s apartment “for the duration.” The duration is now over, and Rudy will be coming home to his wife and daughter,

As VJ day draws to a close, Loretta and Wally arrive at Stella’s apartment a little later than planned; there they find Stella dead on the kitchen floor, a suicide.

From this beginning, the story takes us from Wally’s girlhood to young womanhood and, at the close, motherhood. It is a bildungsroman, or novel of growth, but also a todtsroman. It is punctuated by deaths–Stella’s, as well as the death of her first love and fiancé, who is killed by a log falling from a truck as they travel to his parents’ summer house, which sets the stage for Stella’s later, at first reluctant, marriage to Rudy; of Wally’s younger brother Georgie, who succumbs to whooping cough because no penicillin is available, it having been sent overseas for the troops; of Waldo and Gigi; and of an ant queen. It is also shadowed by the fear of death–of Rudy’s, when he is with the Navy in the South Pacific, and of Ham’s, when he enlists in the Army and is sent to Korea. At its close, though, it is a novel of life. Its ending, like that of Peter Wheelwright’s As It Is On Earth, brought to my mind the final sentence of Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Life, both natural, in the form of ants, and imaginary, in the guise of Wonder Woman, pervades the narrative of Wally’s growth and maturation. Ham becomes interested in the ant colonies he found in Waldo’s and Gigi’s back yard, and collects some to form a captive colony inside a fish tank. He communicates his enthusiasm to Wally, who does the same. Gigi takes them to the Museum of Natural History and introduces them to Vernon Somersby, an entomology curator. Somersby is impressed and offers them regular tutelage. He gets Wally onto a team of researchers who are studying how ants communicate, and she makes an important discovery.

Communication, or the lack of it, is the major theme of the novel. Wally regards Stella, who is reticent about her life away from Wally, as a mystery. Bill Niederman is a mysterious figure, engaged in secret war work. A failure of communication between him and Stella, once rectified, sets the action going. Ham is infuriated by Loretta’s late disclosure of his true parentage. Wally is grateful for RADAR (always in all caps), a form of communication of which the initial recipient is unaware but which reveals the recipient’s location to the sender, for keeping her father alive in the war. There’s even a discussion, by Bill Niederman after he returns to teaching math at Rutgers, of the “Traveling Salesman Problem,” which has to do with establishing the most efficient routes of travel or communication.

Wally is a fan of Wonder Woman, perhaps in part because she wonders about her mother, who is something of a wonder. Some time before Stella’s death, when her mother is away, Wally goes into her bedroom and finds, in a box under the bed, “the most remarkable costume [she] had ever seen.” There is a blue sequined cape on which were “long silver triangles plunging from shoulder to hem, like daggers.” Its lining is “electric-blue silk with blood red piping.” Under it is

a matching dress, short with a sequined bodice and more of those spangly silver daggers on a blue field. Under the dress lay a blue and silver headband and a pair of silver high-heeled booties. It was the costume Wally would have conceived for her mother, if her mother was a superhero.

What clinches it is that Wally sees, embroidered in the lining of the cape, Stella’s maiden initials: “S.W.” Wally takes this to mean “Silver Wonder.”

Worlds opened up in Wally’s mind like accordion folds. Long-standing conundrums sorted themselves out…. All those days and nights she was away, too busy for Wally–she’d been striving to make the world safe for her daughter. And the sense of withholding that Wally had sometimes felt, the sense that her mother was keeping something from her, all that made sense now, too….She was Stella Wallace Baker by the light of day, and the Silver Wonder, a shining streak of justice, by night.

My fellow Brooklyn Heights residents will find some interesting history here. Jim Crow was not absent from our neighborhood, as we see when Wally and Ham go to swim in the St. George Hotel’s Olympic size poll, and the woman at the entrance directs Ham to the “colored changing area.” Ham endures a severe beating when he and Wally go down to the still active docks below the Heights and a longshoreman takes offense at his being there with a white girl. Finally, we get to see what it was like for those living on Columbia Heights–including Waldo and Gigi–when Robert Moses’ “Brooklyn and Queens Connecting Highway” (now the BQE) takes away a large chunk of their back yards.

When the World Was Young is published by Random House, New York (2014).

Source: Self-Absorbed Boomer

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Arts and Entertainment, Brooklyn Heights, Events, Kids

Brooklyn Book Festival Next Sunday, September 21

September 13, 2014

The ninth annual Brooklyn Book Festival will be on Sunday, September 21 from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m at Borough Hall and Columbus Park (immediately north of Borough Hall). There will be readings by and discussions with writers, readings and activities for children, and books for sale. There’s more information here.

During the coming week and the Monday following the Festival there will be “Bookend” events held in various venues around the Borough. Among these venues are Book Court, Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Brooklyn Historical Society, DUMBO Sky, the Powerhouse Arena, Smack Mellon Gallery, St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church, St. Ann’s School, and Vineapple. A full schedule is here.

Source: Brooklyn Heights Blog

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Arts and Entertainment, Brooklyn Heights, Celebrity Residents

Elizabeth Gaffney, at BHS, Reads, Talks About Bygone Brooklyn Heights

August 6, 2014

Novelist and Brooklyn Heights resident Elizabeth Gaffney was at the Brooklyn Historical Society yesterday evening to read from her second novel, When the World Was Young, on the date of its publication by Random House. She read two segments of the novel. The first told how a physician forced to give up her career because of injuries, both physical and emotional, suffered because of an auto accident in which her fiance, another physician, was killed, was courted by and married an old friend from her childhood and youth. Ms. Gaffney concluded this segment by saying, “So began a very bad marriage.” The second was from the 1950s youth of that couple’s daughter, Wally Baker, the novel’s protagonist, and told of her going to the St. George Hotel pool with a friend, Ham, who was black, and of the cicerone who guarded the pool entrance directing Ham to the “colored changing area.”

Following the readings, Ms. Gaffney was joined by Marcia Ely, BHS’s Vice President for External Affairs and Programs (on left in photo) for a discussion. Ms. Gaffney did extensive research for her novel at BHS, using its library and archives. Asked what were the most interesting materials she came across in her research, the author said she found maps of Brooklyn Heights and nearby neighborhoods in which each block was coded according to the number of black people who lived there. These maps were to facilitate banks’ practice of “redlining”; that is, to deny mortgages in places where there was a majority of black residents, and to increase rates in others that were seen to be likely to become majority black.

Source: Brooklyn Heights Blog

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The 13th Apostle by Dermot McEvoy

July 29, 2014

One thing about historical fiction: if you know anything about the history, there are no spoilers. When I picked up The 13th Apostle, I knew how it would end. Michael Collins would die by an assassin’s bullet. I knew it was because of a dispute that had torn the newborn Irish nation asunder, and that the dispute was over whether to accept the terms of a deal with Britain that would allow six northern counties to remain under the Crown. What I didn’t know was Collins’ role in negotiating that deal, and that he died defending instead of opposing it. What little I knew of Collins made me think he’d have been on the other side: an all-or-nothing-ist  instead of a pragmatist.

In his conduct of the struggle to free Ireland, in which his efforts were essential to bring about the conditions that brought Britain to the truce table, Collins was, as the book tells, a consummate pragmatist. He knew just what needed to be done, and how, to undermine the foundation of  British power. He was also, however, not averse to taking risk, sometimes with respect to his own safety. The lot of being the confidante who sometimes must try to talk sense to Collins falls, in the novel, on a fictional character, Eoin Kavanagh.*

The 13th Apostle is a novel told from two points of view. One is that of Eoin Kavanagh who, at fourteen, was a resident, along with his parents and three younger siblings, in a dreadful Dublin building called The Piles. The misery of his family–he lost a younger brother to diphtheria and his mother shows signs of the tuberculosis that will end her life early–makes him sympathetic to the Feinian cause. On Easter Monday 1916 he gets caught up in the excitement and joins the rebels. A bullet grazes one of his buttocks. Lying with the wounded he draws the attention of Michael Collins and of a nurse, Róisín O’Mahony, four years his senior, who tends to his bleeding bottom. From this inauspicious beginning he has an improbable but not inconceivable career. He becomes Collins’ assistant, adviser, and a supernumerary member of his “Squad” who do the targeted killings necessary to advance the liberation of Ireland. The Squad were called “The Twelve Apostles”; hence, the novel’s title. He marries Róisín, and after Collins’ death they emigrate to New York. He settles in Greenwich Village, takes American citizenship (without losing the Irish, from the viewpoint of its government), gets into politics, is elected to Congress, and becomes a confidante of FDR (as Róisín becomes one of, and a ghostwriter for, Eleanor), but after the assassination of JFK decides to leave his adopted country and return to Ireland. There he’s elected to the Dail (the Irish parliament) and supports the cause of liberating the Six Counties from British rule.

The other viewpoint is that of Eoin’s grandson, Eoin Kavanagh III, called “Johnny Three” because Eoin, pronounced “Owen,” is the Gaelic equivalent to John. He’s a writer, lives in the Village, drinks at the Lion’s Head, and is married to Diane, a Presbyterian who loves him dearly but is often amazed, and sometimes dismayed, by his and his family’s Irish ways. Actually, Diane, along with Róisín, should probably be added as point of view characters, because their observations are vital to the development of the story.

The story begins with old Eoin’s death, in Ireland, at the age of 105. As he was the last surviving veteran of the Easter Rising, as well as a distinguished statesman in his later years, his funeral is a major occasion. Johnny Three and Diane attend, and learn that the old man’s legacy to Johnny included a set of diaries, kept from his participation in the Easter Rising through his years as Collins’ assistant and Squad member, Collins’
death, and its aftermath.

The novel’s narrative shifts between Johnny Three and Diane in 2006, and Eoin from Easter Monday, 1916 to August of 1922, with a few snippets of his later life in America, including a meeting with FDR and Churchill on Christmas Eve, 1941, with the U.S. newly allied with Britain against the Axis. It’s Eoin’s second meeting with Churchill, his first having been during the 1921 treaty negotiations, when he served as Collins’ bodyguard. With a little prompting, Churchill remembers this. Churchill and Collins, on whose head Churchill had once put a ten thousand pound reward, came to respect and like each other as men of action. The 13th Apostle includes a true anecdote featuring Churchill’s rapier wit that I hadn’t known before. I won’t spoil it by repeating it here.

While the shifts in locale and time may sound disorienting, they provide a useful perspective. Johnny knew his grandfather had been a rebel, and an associate of Collins, but didn’t know he had participated in the executions of British agents and their Irish collaborators. Diane found it hard to believe that the man she knew as a stand-in father-in-law (we learn little of Johnny Two, other than that he evidently abandoned his son) was a killer. When we see it from Eoin’s perspective, we find how hard it was for him to square his moral convictions with his duty to Ireland and Collins, even when his first fatal shot is into the head of the man who tortured and killed his father.

I learned much history from reading The 13th Apostle, and got a sense of what it was like to have been in Dublin during the years that the Irish Republic, “a terrible beauty” in Yeats’ words, was born. I also learned the words that must be said to make a perfect act of contrition. This book may yet be my ticket to heaven. 
*The character of Eoin Kavanagh seemed so realistic to me that I did a web search for the name, just to see if there was someone with that or a similar name who was prominent in the Irish rebellion. I found this article by Owen Kavanagh (“Owen” is an alternative spelling of the Gaelic “Eoin”) giving the results of his research into the involvement of members of the Kavanagh clan in the Easter Rising and subsequent struggle for liberation. He mentions the brothers Michael and William Kavanagh as having participated in the Easter Rising and later in the fight for independence, a Sean Kavanagh as having been Collins’ intelligence officer in Kildare, and a Seamus Kavanagh as having been among the rebels in the General Post Office on Easter, 1916. Owen Kavanagh’s source of information was:

a set of six…CD’s contain[ing] Dublin Castle’s secret surveillance files, known as Personality Files which were compiled by the Special Branch of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP).

His account ends with an “Author’s Note” mentioning the execution of Alan Bell, a bank examiner sent by the British government to ferret out the accounts holding Sinn Fein’s funds to be used in support of the uprising. In The 13th Apostle, the fictional Eoin Kavanagh is part of the team that captures and kills Bell.  In his Note, Owen Kavanagh describes how Constable Harry Kells of the DMP, who earlier had been tracking the Kavanagh brothers, was assigned to try to find Bell’s killers. This brought Kells to the attention of Collins, who had him killed. There’s no indication, however, that any of the Kavanaghs were involved in Bell’s execution. None of the characters in The 13th Apostle is based on any of these Kavanaghs. There is, however, extensive discussion in the novel about the intelligence operations carried out by the RIC and DMP and the files they kept on actual  and suspected rebels, as well as Collins’ ultimately successful effort to gain access to those files.

Source: Self-Absorbed Boomer

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Shirky Gives the Word at BHA Annual Meeting: the Internet Will Not Destroy Culture

March 4, 2014

A lot went on at Thursday night’s Brooklyn Heights Association Annual Meeting, much of which is touched on in our “Tale of the Tweets” coverage. I have a few points about the business side of the meeting to expand on. In addition to the awards for “best diner” to Clark Restaurant and to Patricia and John Duffy for their renovation of 265 Hicks Street, there was one to the extended Alperin/Lowe/Sullivan family for their various ventures, including Marissa Alperin Studio on State Street between Columbia Place and Willow Place (a frequent stop for your correspondent when shopping for presents for his wife), clothing store and art gallery Goose Barnacle, kids’ clothing shop Junior Lowe, both on Atlantic Avenue, and the re-opening of the Long Island Bar and Restaurant, also on Atlantic.

A new honor was the Martha Atwater Award, named for the Heights resident, TV producer, wife, and mother tragically killed just over a year ago when an out of control truck hit her on the sidewalk on Clinton Street. The first Martha Atwater honoree was Mary Frost, of the Eagle, who received the award in recognition of her coverage of the battle to keep Long Island College Hospital open. Finally, a “Best New Addition to the Neighborhood” award was given to Ted Zoli, with Brooklyn Bridge Park President Regina Myer accepting on his behalf, for his design of the Squibb Park Pedestrian Bridge.

Clay Shirky (photo above), who holds joint appointments as a professor in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and as Distinguished Writer in Residence in NYU’s Arthur. L. Carter Journalism Institute, was evidently prepared (he is a former resident of the area) for an audience heavily salted with geezers, like your correspondent. Hence he saw his mission as dispelling any notion that the internet is leading to the End of Civilization as We Know It. But what is it destroying? There are some distinctions that it is seriously eroding, if not ending.

Shirky said he was sure we were all familiar with the Iliad, the classic account of men at arms and warfare, while a photo of the cast of Hogan’s Heroes was projected above him. Similarly, he said, we knew the Odyssey, the prototypical tale of adventure at sea and on unknown islands; this was accompanied by a photo of the Gilligan’s Island cast. He then showed a typical example of internet trivia: someone’s tweet of their fast food breakfast. Next he showed a page of a blog, NeverSeconds, started by a nine year old Scottish schoolgirl, Martha Payne, who would photograph her school “dinners” (lunches to us) and rate them for taste, healthiness, presence or absence of hairs, and other qualities. Her blog went along for some time, and gained fairly wide readership, with no reaction from school officials until it got mentioned in a newspaper. This caused her to be taken out of class and told she could no longer photograph her school meals. Her “Goodbye” post went, as they say, viral, and generated so much protest that the county council reversed its decision, and Martha’s blog, complete with photos, continues. Shirky said this illustrates one of the cultural changes the internet is effecting: an erasing of the professional/amateur distinction. Once, to reach a wide audience quickly, you had to be a professional journalist. Now, thanks to the internet, even an amateur can.

Another distinction being lost is that between public and private – as Shirky discussed in this chat a few years ago with “Switched”:

Shirky noted that tweeting on Twitter is often used as a means of chatting with friends, as oppeosed to e-mail or text messaging, but that it isn’t private, as e-mail or texting is.

As to whether the internet is oblivious to, or drowning out, “serious culture” (like the Iliad or Odyssey), Shirky noted that the printing press was invented in 1450, that the first erotic novel was printed in 1495, but that serious philosophical papers weren’t printed until the 1600s. So, just be patient. (Actiually, the first thing reported to have been printed by Johannes Gutenberg was “a German poem”; after that he produced the first printed Bible. He also printed papal encyclicals, church indulgences, and Latin grammars.)

Since I’ve used Wikipedia as a reference, it’s worth noting an interesting statistic that Shirky used in his presentation. The total person-hours used to produce and edit the entire content of Wikipedia up to a fairly recent date is approximately 100 million, but the total time spent watching TV over the same period of time (I don’t recall if he said, but I’m assuming this is worlwide) is estimated at 200 billion person hours. So, the time used by amateurs to produce an encyclopedia is, in shirky’s words, a “rounding error” compared to couch potato (or stationary bike/treadmill) time.

Source: Brooklyn Heights Blog

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Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights Resident & Pulitzer Winner Ron Chernow Receives BIO Award

May 21, 2013

Brooklyn Heights resident Ron Chernow, who won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his biography Washington: A Life, as well as a place in the Brooklyn Heights Blog’s Top 10 that year, has received the BIO award from the non-profit Biographers International Organization.

During a gathering May 18 at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan, Chernow, 64, spoke about some of his most famous subjects and how their public reputations often concealed a far more interesting private person: “Once upon a time, biography was a very formal, straight-laced affair. But nowadays we all expect the enterprising biographer to ferret out that hidden self.”

The BIO award is given for making a “major contribution” to the field of biography. Previous winners include Robert Caro and Arnold Rampersad.

Chernow’s other works include bios of Alexander Hamilton, J.P. Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller.

Source: Brooklyn Heights Blog

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Cobble Hill’s BookCourt Hosts Author Thea Goodman March 18

March 17, 2013

BookCourt at 163 Court Street in Cobble Hill will host Thea Goodman, author of “The Sunshine When She’s Gone,” with a reading, Q&A and signing on Monday, March 18 at 7 p.m. Drinks will be served!

“Her book is a fresh and funny debut novel about marriage and new parenting—about the love, longing and ambivalence exposed when a husband takes the baby on a highly unusual outing,” BookCourt tells CHB.

More about the book
When Veronica Reed wakes up one frigid January morning, two things are off—first of all, she has had a good night’s sleep, which hasn’t happened in months, and second, both her husband and her baby are gone. Grateful for the much-needed rest, Veronica doesn’t, at first, seriously question her husband’s trip out to breakfast with baby Clara. Little does she know, her spouse has fled lower Manhattan, with Clara, for some R&R in the Caribbean.

Told through alternating points of view, The Sunshine When She’s Gone explores the life-changing impact of parenthood on a couple as individuals and as partners. Thea Goodman brings us into intimacies made tense by sleep-deprivation and to losses and gains made more real by acknowledging them. Here is the story of a couple pushed to the edge and a desperate father’s attempt give them both space to breathe.

About the author
Thea Goodman has received the Columbia Fiction Award, a Pushcart Prize Special Mention and fellowships at Yaddo and Ragdale; her short stories have appeared in several journals, notably New England Review, Other Voices and Columbia. Born in New York City, she studied at Sarah Lawrence and earned her MFA from Brooklyn College, CUNY. She has taught writing at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, and lives in Chicago with her husband and children.

Source: Cobble Hill Blog

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Books, Brooklyn Heights

‘Truth in Advertising’ Author John Kenney Likes The Heights

January 22, 2013

Brooklyn Heights’ writer & author John Kenney’s debut novel “Truth in Advertising” was released this week by A-list publisher Simon and Schuster. The book explores the fictional life of a modern day ad pro—after Kenney worked as a copywriter in NYC for 17 years and as a New Yorker magazine contributor since 1999.

It was reviewed in Tuesday’s Boston Globe (albeit not too kind)… In addition, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which published a Q&A with the writer today, notes: “Through his fictional character Finbar Dolan, Kenney offers a candid and humorous vision of what it truly means to be an advertising professional, delving not only into Dolan’s professional life, but also the inevitable complications of romance and family relationships.”

In the Eagle profile, the (very handsome) Kenney also shares some sweet smack about living in Brooklyn Heights:

It is nice to live not far from where Walt Whitman strolled. I moved to Brooklyn in 1998. I was living on the Upper West Side, in an apartment I couldn’t really afford. I came over to visit a friend one afternoon in Brooklyn Heights. I’d never been to Brooklyn. I found an apartment a few months later and have lived in the neighborhood ever since. My wife and I have two children and the apartment is getting noticeably smaller. Last spring we drove to the suburbs of New Jersey and Westchester. All lovely. But we came screaming back to Brooklyn each time. We love it.

Source: Brooklyn Heights Blog

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Arts and Entertainment, Brooklyn Heights

St. Francis College Professor Sorrentino Hosts ‘Presidency, FBI and MLK’ Feb. 13

January 15, 2013

Presidential Scholar & St. Francis Political Science Professor Frank Sorrentino will lead a discussion on “The Presidency, The FBI and Martin Luther King” at the St. Francis College Founders Hall on Wednesday, February 13 from 12:30-2:30 p.m. The free lecture is open to the public.

To honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and mark Black History Month, the discussion will focus “on the web of relations between various parties that resulted in counter-intelligence activities against Dr. King. These activities included surveillance and the release of information to news outlets and other prominent parties such as members of Congress, religious leaders, university presidents, as well as foundations and other significant donors to Dr. King and his organization. These measures also helped foment feuds among various civil rights leaders and organizations.”

The theme of the talk is exposure of the political battle for power and policy in America, which dovetails into the subject matter of Dr. Sorrentino’s new book, “Presidential Leadership and the Bureaucratic State,” published by Outskirts Press. A book signing of the newly published work will take place after the lecture.

St. Francis College is located at 180 Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights.

Source: Brooklyn Heights Blog

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Friends Of Brooklyn Heights Library Offers Hart Crane Tribute January 9

January 7, 2013

The Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library is presenting “Dedicated To Hart Crane” Wednesday, January 9 at 6:30 p.m. at 280 Cadman Plaza West. The Chief Librarian of the BPL will introduce Prof. Langdon Hammer, Chairman of the Department of English at Yale University, who will give a short talk about Hart Crane, one of Brooklyn Heights’ best-known poets, and read from his anthology of Crane’s poetry. He will also present the Branch with the Empire State Center’s Hall of Fame Plaque.

Books will also be available for purchase at the event, and refreshments will be served. Admission is free.

Source: Brooklyn Heights Blog

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