Book review: One Hundred Miles From Manhattan, by Guillermo Fesser
Americans tend to get restless and move around a lot. They effortlessly leave one state for another. Don’t think it’s easy to guess their origin. Curiously, Americans tend to tell me they are from the place where they currently live rather than sharing the name of their city of birth. If I ask someone from Kansas who has been living in Rhinebeck for 13 years where he’s from, he’ll tell me that he’s from Rhinebeck without batting an eye. If I pose the question to a Chinese woman from Beijing who lives in Manhattan, she’ll say she’s from New York.
Happy Thanksgiving week! I hope everyone finds so much to be thankful for.
It’s amazing that we can learn so much about our own country – maybe one where we’ve spent most, if not all, of our lives – from how it’s seen through a non-native’s eyes.
Guillermo Fesser was a successful Spanish radio journalist who moved to Rhinebeck, his wife’s hometown in Dutchess County in upstate New York, with their three children. He needed a break from his popular and long-running but demanding radio gig, and he seemed to already have seeds of insatiable curiosity planted about America. As any good journalist knows, if you really want to understand a place and a people, you have to embed. He does, and I don’t think he’s met a person or a story that he doesn’t like.
The result is a somewhat breathless, constantly in motion account of his family’s lives in America. Mostly focused in quiet Rhinebeck, with tales of small-town living and all that accompanies it socially, he also makes jaunts far beyond, relating stories that reach across the continent and back into episodes of American history. All told from an outsider’s perspective, able to pick up on the customs, rules, laws, and mannerisms that Americans often take for granted as anything unusual or interesting, having always just done them or had them around.
His observations on Americana, on the particularities and quirks of the way of life, or culture, or just how we do things, run the gamut between deeper meditations and funny, silly things that stand out when you’re not used to them. This goes for the little things as well as the big ones. I was so amused by his noticing the “guillotine-type windows” in American homes, for example. I’ll always think of them that way now.
He also sweetly portrays the people around him in his little town – their lives, careers, families, interests – and it’s such a sweet, charming endeavor. Small towns get overlooked, especially by visitors to the country who are more often attracted to the famous metropolises with more cosmopolitan leanings and diverse, international populations. There’s something lovely about his genuine fascination with this small Hudson Valley town and its inhabitants.
The stories jump all over the place. Even in telling one person’s story, or recounting a single event, Fesser can’t quite stay on track. He loops in every subject that his mind jumps to while telling a story, creating a zigzagging line of a narrative. It’s like my train of thought when falling asleep. I can see where this could be confusing or annoying for some, but I actually liked it – his enthusiasm for what he’s learned and observed is catching. You can’t help but be breathlessly excited along with him.
At least most of the time, elsewhere he gets onto topics that interested me less and then there’s nothing to do but wait until he’s onto the next.
The curious journalist in him takes up friendly Americans on all variety of offer and invitation, so that he finds himself witnessing a buffalo “harvest” with Native American sacrificial blessings in Texas, attending lots of parties and social events with customs and habits that surprise or baffle him, going fishing in Alaska, helping a sculptor friend install pieces of the Daniel Pearl memorial sculpture at the Wall Street Journal, or doing work at the site of the World Trade Center towers before the currently standing memorial went up. He has some truly moving experiences.
The storytelling is a little wordy – I could’ve done without the many asides, interjections, unnecessary snippets of conversation, and strange, frequent inclusion of single words that don’t enhance the stories, like Goodbye. Okay. Hi, so and so. The book is actually a bit on the long side, which was the biggest negative. Maintaining a high level of interest in the less interesting forays deeper into certain topics or events wasn’t completely possible for me. And although his thought process was interesting, the frequent comments on what’s already a long-running piece of commentary seemed unnecessary.
But it was worth reading for his impressions on people and ways of life. The narrative is kind of like what you see in the cover image – a big jumble of seemingly unrelated things that are tossed together, piled up and somehow, for the most part, come together. It was a 3/5 for me.
If you’re interested in reading it, it’s worth noting that it often shows up as a bargain ebook in this newsletter (I’m not paid to promote it or anything, that’s just how I discovered it.) I read it for free after downloading the Kindle app to my rickety ancient iPad, because I had a review copy of another book that was only Kindle-compatible and I use a non-Kindle device. It seems if you download the app, you get a short free trial of Kindle Unlimited, and One Hundred Miles from Manhattan is one of the selections available there. So maybe good to know.
One Hundred Miles from Manhattan
by Guillermo Fesser
published in English in 2014 by Barcelona Books,
originally published in Spain in 2008 as “A cien millas de Manhattan”