Few writers have both a keen eye for biographical detail and the ability to place those details in a portrait that resonates across history. Sam Roberts, who has worked for The New York Times for decades, is that kind of writer, as he deftly proves in his new book, profiling 31 not particularly famous New Yorkers who helped shape the city over the past 400 years. My favorite may be Audrey Munson, a figure model quick to disrobe for artists and whose likeness can be seen today in memorials throughout the city, most notably as Civic Fame, the 25-foot-tall, 5,000-pound statue that stands atop the Municipal Building, across from City Hall. How she ended up in a lunatic asylum at age 40, living there until her death, in 1996 at age 104, has all the makings of a potboiler. Except it is all true, and in the hands of Roberts, a stylishly told tale.
The perils of post-Soviet Russia in the mid-1990s were pretty clear to business buccaneers such as Bill Browder, who wrote about the murder of his friend and lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, in his memoir Red Notice. But who in the new Russia wouldn’t love Elmo? Natasha Lance Rogoff was a young, untried producer when she flew to Moscow in 1993 with the seemingly benign task of creating a Russian version of Sesame Street. How hard could it be? Since 1972, there have been 30 different foreign adaptations of the PBS show.
The Russians hated Elmo. Lance Rogoff loved Russian literature and, as a teen, even changed her name from Susan to Natasha, but she wasn’t prepared for the hostility of her Moscow peers, who resented what they viewed as the saccharine Americanization of children’s television. She certainly didn’t expect how much chaos, mistrust, and danger lay ahead—one of her early patrons was the shady (and now dead) oligarch Boris Berezovsky; two well-known television executives involved in her project were murdered while Lance Rogoff was overseeing puppet costumes. Muppets in Moscow is a well-meaning look deep inside the early years of gangster capitalism in Russia, written with humor and also compassion.
We don’t usually review cookbooks (perhaps we should!), but when the owners of one of our favorite restaurants write one, well, why not? Partners in life as well as in restaurants, Jody Williams and Rita Sodi took over a shuttered Thai restaurant on Grove Street in Manhattan’s West Village in 2014 and opened Via Carota, a long, narrow trattoria that specializes in vegetable dishes but not to the exclusion of meat and seafood. The plates are intentionally small, so ordering three items (or more!) makes the most delicious sense. Now, you can make these dishes at home, and though your pork chops cooked in milk or your squash marinated with onions and currants and your olive-oil cake may not taste as good as theirs, you will be happy nonetheless. And not just because you did not have to wait in line for a table on Grove Street.