I am not unpacking my library. No, I’m not. I pace around the living room of our newly rented apartment, which isn’t even so new anymore, but it still doesn’t feel like home. In Russian, we say: “Why are you standing there like an impoverished relative?” In Yiddish it’s something about standing around like a golem. I say both of those admonitions to myself, almost out loud, but all of our new things here—couch, bookcases, built-in shelves, fake fireplace—continue to feel foreign to me, and even our old things, the very few we could bring here with us, feel out of context. My doumbek drum functions as a miniature coffee table with a tall stack of magazines and books, and a cup of coffee tilting ominously.
For many children of Asian immigrants, success is seen as hinging upon assimilation into white culture, which continues to dominate many spaces that can lead to upward mobility (this is part of the complex and hugely detrimental model minority myth). Food is one of few more visible ways to reclaim that heritage; and that very reclamation influences and complicates the identity of those of us who are assimilated.
The bicycle was invented in 1817 — much later than salt, trees or sheep, if you look it up. Indeed, as Jody Rosen points out in his excellent new book, “Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle,” “the first bike came into the world a decade and a half after the invention of the steam locomotive.” It seems startlingly late for the arrival of such an intuitive and simple form of transportation, and that recentness suggests that, for all Rosen’s dutiful consideration of the possible antecedents of the bike (an unconvincing image in a centuries-old stained-glass window in Buckinghamshire, England, for instance), he might be precluded from the effects that similar microhistories can achieve.
In fact, the opposite is true: The narrow subject and relatively brief time frame of “Two Wheels Good” make it a crystalline portrait of modernity, the vexed, exhilarating, murderous, mechanized world left to us by the 19th century. The bicycle has touched nearly every element of life on earth since then, it turns out. The Vietcong used bikes in their counterraids; Susan B. Anthony once commented that the bicycle had “done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”; it was a Parisian bicycle maker who patented the ball bearing, the so-called atom of the machine age. We even rode it into the age of flight, in a sense: The Wright brothers were bike mechanics.
To write about Naples, you really need to be a poet—or, even better, an antiquarian bookseller. Mr Kociejowski is both and has produced a delightful work that is as eclectic, labyrinthine, ironic and shocking as the city itself.