Monday, June 8, 2015

Book Review: Upper West Side by Susan Pashman

Meet Bettina Grosjean, a professor of Women’s History, and her husband, a high-ranking environmental policymaker in the New York City mayor’s office. Once a pair of student radicals, they are now raising their two brainy children on New York’s Upper West Side.

Here is the tale of their fierce parental love as it is tested in a startling eruption of racial hostility and political chicanery within the very community they have long loved and helped to build. Despite the deep love and affection they have for each other, their domestic life is suddenly thrown into crisis by a shocking and tragic event: During a school field trip, their son Max and his best friend, Cyrus, are horsing around when, in a freak accident, Cyrus falls down a flight of stairs, and dies a few days later.

The fact that Cyrus is black, that his mother is Bettina’s closest friend–that jealousy, suspicion and resentment have long been simmering in the community, and that there are powerful political forces at work as well–all conspire to reveal an ugly underbelly of the community the Grosjeans have worked so hard to fashion into a model of an enlightened, multiracial world.

Upper West Side Story is also the story of a remarkable multi-racial friendship, of two women united by their ideals and their devotion to their children, then divided by events that spiral out of control.

With cries for racial justice rising up all around our country, we must stop and consider how recent headlines are impacting our children, kids raised to believe in an America that is different from the one now showing its face.



Upper West Side is not an easy read.  Having said that, this book should be required reading in every high school English class, if only the NEA would have the *ahem* let's just say courage - to 'make it so'.

I wish people could just be people, and that we could work together to make the world a better place, but I seriously despair of that ever happening.  There is male vs. female, people of color vs. 'white' people, gay vs. straight, one religion vs. any other religion.  Many people on all sides of these equations are as convinced of the superiority of their qualities, thoughts and lives over others as they are that someone (usually one of those 'others') are trying to prevent them from keeping or gaining what they feel is their due.

In the middle of the mosh pit of race in Upper West Side are two young boys, Max and Cyrus.  Max and Cyrus are best friends.  Max is white, while Cyrus is black.  Some of Cyrus's black friends do not like Max because he is white, and do not like that Cyrus and Max are friends even more.  On a school outing, these 'friends' urge Cyrus to harass Max, which he does.  At one point, Max pushes back.  Unfortunately, that point is at the top of a flight of stairs in the subway.  Cyrus falls down the stairs, loses consciousness and several days later, he dies.

That any child dies is sad.  That an otherwise healthy child dies from an accident, is tragic.  That some people try to use such a tragedy to advance a political agenda really makes me sick.  But it happens quite often, and not just about racial issues.

All of a sudden, there are several 'witnesses' who claim that Max pushed Cyrus with the intent that Cyrus fall and hurt himself.  They happen to be some of Cyrus's black friends.  (Max claimed he and Cyrus had run ahead and were in that stairwell by themselves.)  Were they simply being hateful, were they 'coached' for some other reason, or were they telling the truth?  I believe Pashman handles this question with sensitivity in that it really is not definitively answered - we learn what several of the characters believe.

The literary mechanics of Upper West Side are smooth and understated.  What I mean by this is that I think they afford the story center stage, which is just where it needs to be in this case.  The question of race is far from settled in this country.  We can watch the evening news on any day for stories of racial tension.  If you haven't thought about race in a while, you will think about it after reading this book.  If you thought your mind was made up (either closed or wide-open), you will call that into question.

Upper West Side is probably the most worthwhile, uncomfortable book I've read in a long time.  Sometimes I could only read a chapter before I'd have to do something else and give my mind time to digest what I had read.  But I always came back.  And maybe once the tour starts and I read a couple other reviews, or listen to the chatter, I will go back and read it again.


Just for the heck of it, I looked up demographic information for my county in Kentucky.  In 2013, 95.9% of the population was white; 2.4% were African American.  But it's not like we have sought-after real estate either.  There is a road not too far from us called "Old Negro Creek Road".  Not too many years ago it was called by a different, entirely politically incorrect name.  I like to think I don't have rigid biases, but am open to respectful suggestions to the contrary.  I'm doing the best I can with the knowledge that I have.



Susan Pashman is a philosophy professor and former attorney. While in law school, she served a year in the New York City Council President’s office; some of what she learned there has found its way into this story. But most of this book derives from her experience of raising two boys on her own in Brooklyn. Many of her sons’ childhood exploits, and the hopes and fears she had for them, became the heart of this novel.

She now resides in Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband, Jack Weinstein.

Connect with Susan:  Website ~  Facebook ~ Twitter  ~  Goodreads



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The tour runs through June 10th and you can find the schedule by clicking on the iRead logo button right up there.  There are more reviews, a guest post and several interviews with the author available.  You can also apply to become a reviewer for iRead Book Tours while you are there.

(Disclosure:  I received a print copy of this book from the author and publisher via iRead Book Tours in exchange for my honest and unbiased review.)

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