Blog : Books

Author, Auster: My Love for the Novelist Paul Auster – by Paul A.

I’m currently on page 676 of Paul Auster’s latest novel, the 866-page opus 4 3 2 1. And I have to say – each page is bliss. I find myself smiling a lot, occasionally chuckling gleefully, and even a couple of times on the edge of tears. I come back to the book each night like an old friend I am delighted to see again. Which makes sense – because Paul Auster is my favourite modern novelist by a country mile, and one I always return to with anticipation.

I was first introduced to him by my mum. One day at the library, she handed me a copy of Moon Palace, and said, “I think you might like this.” (She never does that with books. With shirts yes, but this was unusual.) I still don’t know quite why she thought I would like it, but I tried it. And fell immediately in love, with Auster’s mysterious, affectionate, spell-binding tale of Marco Stanley Fogg’s journey through the American twentieth century. That was the last Auster book I read from the library. After that, it was straight to the bookshop to read more. I gobbled them up – starting with his acknowledged classic trio of short dream-like detective novellas, The New York Trilogy. I burned through his novels – it would be impossible to pick favourites, but some I just loved: The Book of Illusions, his tale of a grieving professor who finds meaning in rediscovering a lost silent comedian; Timbuktu, his delightful novel narrated by Mr. Bones, a dog; The Music of Chance, his twisting, tragic tale of the dangers of gambling with your life (which was made into a splendid little movie with Mandy Patinkin and James Spader); and Mr. Vertigo, his wonderful story of a young orphan who learns to fly … and the dark dangers of the world of entertainment.

When I’d read all his novels heretofore published, and was awaiting his new one, I found myself trying his prose … and finding it equally human and absorbing. His tales of growing up in New Jersey, of near starvation poverty in Paris translating poems and attempting to be a writer, and his lessons in life becoming a father, trying out being a film-maker, aging and learning, in books like Hand to Mouth, The Red Notebook, and more recently Winter Journal. His published letters, with fellow writer, J. M. Coetzee, comparing life in South Africa and Brooklyn are a joy; the collection of stories of coincidence collected by the public radio station NPR from its listeners that he edits, True Tales of American Life, reads like a myriad of one-page Auster adventures; and even his screenplays, a form normally sluggish and cold to read, burst with imagination and playfulness.

Did the fact that with my middle name being Andrew, he and I were both Paul A., impact my interest in him? No doubt it did, and it’s the kind of play on words and names that he loves. I initially mis-pronounced his surname as “austere”, which I think he’d quite like. Since he’s both that and not that. His writing is clean and clear, uncluttered, never trying to bewilder us with clever language (unlike Joyce, one of his heroes). But his writing is also warm, funny, silly, intrigued, flawed, meandering and humane – never cold. Some people have told me he is a postmodern novelist, but I find myself arguing with them, because he’s not cynical and clinical – yes, he’s playful, in ways I’ll talk about below, but it’s never about form, it’s never cruel, desolate, giving up on us. It’s always sincere and compassionate – often whimsical. It’s full of love of life – I’ve personally always found Auster’s writing to be much more like Dickens than like Beckett.

I’ve been in the same room as him three times, all in New York, and I can say, in person he comes across as brave, curious, generous and humble, yet with a robust self belief. Though I’ve never spoken to him. The first time, he was reading from his new novel, Invisible, at the 92nd Street Y. He started to read, and I was surprised. Based on his author photo (Auster the author, mysterious dark eyes in a black polo neck) and his sensitive writing, I expected a gentle, light, bohemian voice. Instead, Auster had the pleasing smoky deep tones of a New Jersey truck driver. Then I went from surprised to astonished – he chose to read, in front of hundreds of people, a passage from the book that was essentially a long graphic sex scene, indeed an incestuous one, and I remember thinking, even as an actor who thought he was decently courageous, I would have struggled to do it. But it wasn’t to shock – he read with great brave calm, and it facilitated a powerful discussion afterwards about a key idea in the book – how much of this was fantasy, and how much we mangle memory in our lives. I was wowed – this man’s skill was only matched by his bravery.

The second time, I saw him speak at the Strand Bookstore, along with Edward Albee, about the influence of Samuel Beckett on their work. Kind of a dream come true for this actor! It was joyous to see how much he loved plays, even though he doesn’t write them – at times, he seemed to like them more than Albee! But what I was struck by was his humility – and his feeling of debt and awe to other writers, from Shakespeare onwards.

Finally, I went to see an on-stage adaptation of City of Glass, one of The New York Trilogy, at a tiny theatre in Greenwich Village. It was quite good – a little avant-garde artsy for my taste, but it captured theatrically a lot of the mystery about identity in the book. Then suddenly my evening became like a chapter … in a Paul Auster book. I heard a man laugh heartily, in a lovely warm guffaw, at many of the comic moments in the play. It sounded vaguely familiar … could it be … nah. Then, as I was leaving the theatre after the show, there walking in the lobby right in front of me … is Paul Auster. And I think, “Gosh, I should go up and talk to him. He’d love the coincidence of this, he just happens to be here the night I come, his huge fan, Paul A., Paul an Actor with Paul the Author …” when I noticed the writer-director of the play joining him, and starting to talk about the show, and Auster was warmly, generously congratulating him on the piece, and I realized – this was his moment and I didn’t want to disturb it. Maybe I should have held on, found a way to say hello, but this felt like the right thing in that Paul Auster moment too, as I walked off into the New York night, marvelling at life’s incredible capacity for meaningful chance.

But back to the books. What do I find so special about his writing? Well, besides his ability to create intriguing narratives, to develop and reveal character, and to examine big themes in his stories, there are a few special things that are particularly Paul Auster that I love:

I love how he makes lists.

I love his enchantment with games, both the intricacies and joys of sports, particularly baseball, but also games he makes up that his characters play, like Screwdriver Darts. (I recently was cleaning out some old boxes of papers, and found I had written down the complete rules to Playing Card Baseball that Auster created in one of his books.)

I love his fascination with chance and coincidence. Life is always full of strange twists of fate in Auster’s world, the gods are at play, the world is small and ingenious and deeply mysterious. And bets are always dangerous in a Paul Auster novel.

I love how he’s intrigued by names, and the power of names. Of the name Paul. Of getting nicknames. Of how names are changed, like immigrant surnames anglicized at Ellis Island. Of anagrams. Of matching names. Of friends with similar sounding names. Of choosing pen names and aliases. Of initials. And of the titles of books and movies and stories.

I love his affection for the very poetry of words – not just in their arrangement but in individual words alone – what they sound like, where they come from, what they look like. He plays with words.

I love his adoration of books, and of stories, and of stories within stories. His regard for the masters like Cervantes, Kafka and Dickens, and his fascination with the very act of writing, including the choice of pencils and notebooks used, of what desk to sit at and where, and of typewriters as heavy hearty old friends and great gifts. His awe at the very process of publishing and how bookshops are magical sanctums of quiet possibility.

I love his delight in movies and movie-going, of old black-and-white Hollywood from spinning noir to Laurel and Hardy screwball slapstick, and of slow-moving French movies. And of the different qualities of cinemas and being in them, from the Thalia in Manhattan to the Cinematheque in Paris. And of the mischievous truancy of a matinee on your own.

I love how his women are smart, adventurous, fierce and challenging, often mysterious, but with a delicate heartbreak (and romance-stopping heart-brake) to them. How he never underestimates the capacity of older people to still have strivings, dreams unfulfilled and to make major mistakes. And how he brings together little gangs of aspiring kooks, wanderers and lost souls.

I love how he nails the essence of places, especially New York and Paris. Both cities’ capacity to be foreboding from the outside and sweetly delicious from the inside. The quality of walking straight blocks in Manhattan and winding cobbles in Paris. Reliable diners in Brooklyn and bustling restaurants in Saint Germain. The French capacity for disdain and generosity, of New Yorkers’ grinding determination and secret flights of fancy.

I love how fascinated he is by the structure of a day. I find myself jealous of his characters and the routines they build. And how he sees the value in repetition, and in repetitive work and of deep delving, whether writing a book or building a wall.

I love his bad jokes. His love of lame puns and punchlines. Of catchphrases. Of the joy in people’s dumb attempts at humour.

And I love how much he loves people. That is clear in every word, every line, every page, every punch of his typewriter keys, his huge heart for all kinds of people amid the incomprehensible totality of life, and the worthwhile effort of writing to understand … bits of it.

Most of all, he is so paulfyl. I mean playful. I think that’s a pretty great quality – in art and life.

Thanks, Paul. From Paul.



8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

So I am an actor who loves to read … about acting. About the theatre, its backstage inner workings, its tall tales and anecdotes, and stories of the journeys of great actors. Of course, lots about Shakespeare. I love an in-depth long-form article on a playwright’s methodology. And that’s not even mentioning the other side of the coin, all those books about the movies. I’m always excited to get a recommendation from a friend/colleague/mentor about a book that will inspire me – as an actor, as a can-do member of our guild, as an artist exhilarated to grab a piece of text and run with it.

Another day, I’ll share some recommendations for my favourite plays, theatre/film biographies, and books on Shakespeare, but today I thought I might talk about eight books that I have found to be particularly helpful to an actor, providing genuinely insightful tools for your process, and inspiration for your creativity and joy in doing the work.

I’m going to suggest some of my personal favourites, besides the famous texts you’ll find on any acting syllabus – so with of course huge respect, you don’t need to hear from me about the unquestioned masterworks of Stanislavski, Uta Hagen, Michael Chekhov, Stella Adler, Peter Brook. (I’m also going to leave out the theatre book I am currently reading, the utterly delightful and insightful Joy Ride by John Lahr, featuring his best New Yorker pieces on stagefolk, as I’m only half-way through it. But I reserve the right to add it in later revisions … )

So, let’s raise the curtain on:

8 Maybe Not Quite So Famous but Really Inspiring and Helpful Books for an Actor

Strengthen your ability to work on a text – Audition by Michael Shurtleff

I don’t know if there’s a book that produces more creative juice for an actor when preparing for an audition (or frankly any performance of a script) than Michael Shurtleff‘s Audition. Written in 1978, it’s just as vibrant today, in providing 12 guideposts for examining a text, from relationships and finding the conflict, to levels of competition and secrecy. Beautifully practical and sassily unsentimental, it gloriously provides you with a set of questions you can ask a script, so that without a director to help, you can work alone on material, and find all the fuel and spark that is within it. To be honest, if you only read one book from this list, this is the one – the code, the manual, the mentor-in-print. Acerbically funny in its truth-telling yet also full of love for actors, it’s such a great book my wife Anna and I both have our own copies of it in our library …


Understand how the stories you tell are constructed – Story by Robert McKee & Into the Woods by John Yorke

I am a deep believer that actors are storytellers – not puppets on a string, but artists who bring their insight and creativity to bringing a script to life. They owe a honourable duty of care to deliver the writer’s story to the audience as best as they can. To do so, they must understand not just their role in the piece, but the story as a whole. How it is structured, how it builds. As such, I think there are two texts that are truly genius at helping us to look at scripts and divulge their blueprint, find their foundation, see the gorgeous lines of their construction, and those are Story by American screenwriting teacher Robert McKee and Into the Woods by British TV show-runner John Yorke. If you want to learn about turning points and mid-point revelations, set-ups and rushes of information, inciting incidents and gaps in expectation, these are wonderful guides.

Be excited to practice – How to Stop Acting by Harold Guskin

This is a book I have only come across recently, and found it really invigorating. Harold Guskin is great on the idea that one of the key things we need to do with material, is say the lines aloud – a lot. Reading them and saying them, and reading them and saying them, but purposefully and enjoyably. Each time for a different reason (for example: in a rage, for laughs, intimately, for pure logic, for petty reasons) seeing how in each go-through we respond to the text, what impulses come up, and filling up the tank of possibilities in a set of lines. He starts us from the place we always want to be at: that we are responding in the moment to what is in front of us, so it is always an exploration, every run-through, every rehearsal, every practice, every take, every performance. That there is no fixed ideal, but rather we are always active, fresh-minted, surprised and surprising, like life. He encourages us to practice being available to ourselves, to our intuitions, to our crazy flashes of insight and strange notions, as we approach the work – always resulting in performances that are more colourful, exciting and unique. Guskin proposes clear exercises, offers monologues and scenes suitable for each step, and will make you feel like practicing your acting every day. (He also says it’s okay for an actor to leave his or her script on the kitchen table, which is dead right).

Open your creativity with rehearsal exercises – Masterclass by Dean Carey

I love this book. I initially picked it up in late ’90s before going to drama school, because it had over 100 monologues in it, so I could find a great one to audition with. Indeed it does. But the gold in this book is the range of hugely practical exercises that its author, the Australian acting teacher Dean Carey, provides for you to work on your material. Super-useful and clearly road-tested, he provides a range of exercises and games that you can try out on the script, that will help playfully draw out aspects of the character and scene, that truly are unique to you, your responses to the circumstances in the story. I still regularly use his exercises Extend/Advance (for turning key words on the page into sensory experiences), Explore and Heighten (for amplifying different sides of the character, as described in adjectives) and questioning Is This Good or Bad For Me? He’s also brilliant on on beat defining and titling. I guarantee after bringing some of his exercises to your prep work, you’ll find yourself invigorated, ringing with creativity, feeling the lines in your bones, and quite possibly, surprisingly already off-book (and having spent a very fun afternoon). Well worth having in your arsenal. (Plus it has really fun photos of a young, pre-fame Hugh Jackman in rehearsals, that can only inspire you.)

Learn to flesh it out and pop – Acting 2.0 by Anthony Abeson

Now I am going to state up front my conflict of interest here: this is the book by my old acting teacher in New York, Anthony Abeson. A giddy joy of a man, he draws from his own background training with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Jerzy Grotowski, among others, to teach actors practical ways to bring truth to material that flares with unique personal creativity (and book rather a lot of work, especially in film and TV). His warm and generous collections of essays Acting 2.0 is full of love for the actor in the modern world, and sets out a number of the utterly practical and playful approaches he has, that lead to an actor “popping” with life. “No recipes – whatever works,” as the man himself often says. He is brilliant on what he calls FIO’ing (Fleshing It Out) – never letting a word be spoken from the page that has not been imagined in its full life, acted out, pictured, felt, so everything said and done on the stage vibrates with resonant past-life, meaning and experience. He is terrifically incisive on moments before and the need to have found a trigger that drives you into the scene on fire; on grabbing a hold of your stereotype by the throat and making it a strength, and never retreating from working your weaknesses; and on reminding us that when we act a role, we represent all the people who have had that experience, and so we must do justice to them. Anthony is a deep believer in the self-respect of actors, and any reader of this book will only find warm encouragement to be integrous, playful and bravely full of life.

Challenge yourself to delve deeply into your work – The Intent to Live by Larry Moss

When you are ready to be challenged by a hard-ass teacher, there’s one man to go to – Larry Moss. His workshops in New York and LA are legendary for the exacting high standards he demands from actors – their capacity to be off-book, the rigour of their accent work, their willingness to dig right into the roots of a scene, their courage to bring fully of themselves in the situation proposed. And his book, The Intent To Live, is no different. Larry pushes you to stretch yourself towards your true potential as an actor, and not to settle for anything slipshod, cliched or facile. He is brilliantly comprehensive on the questions you need to ask in order to probe for all the facts that are there in a scene, and building a very specific system of wants. He opens creative doors you may not have considered, like endowing objects with past meaning, finding resonance in the blood memory of your character, and the rich physical sensations of places. He’s not easy on actors, but that is only because he sees such beauty in the actor’s purpose … and challenges us to honour our storytelling with truly our best work.

Be inspired by the stage – Theatre by David Mamet

Now obviously Mamet is a master playwright and a very powerful thinker about the craft, and you wouldn’t go wrong reading any of his books. True or False is excellent, hugely challenging, even at times maddening (to the point that I know an acting teacher who flung it across the room in mid-read rage). And we know Mamet loves to snarl and throw a grenade into the kitchen, with the idea that when the smoke clears, there’ll be a hard, spartan, clean truth awaiting (maybe a little sour-tasting, but good for you, you know?) But the book of Mamet I really love is this collection of essays from 2010 on theatre. Yes, it is still written with Mamet’s knife of a pen, with the no-nonsense gruffness of a hunting cabin, but whisper it … Mamet’s love for the theatre, after all these years, comes pouring through, and it is full of heartfelt belief in the importance of plays and in the powerful capacity of actors and in the mighty imagination of audiences. He slams preconceived notions on the floor, and leaves them for you to make your own decision about … always with the sense of great possibility. If you’re an actor, you’re going to be pretty psyched to get to work after reading it.

Picture yourself about to go on stage – The Half by Simon Annand

Maybe now you’re done reading – but there’s still one more book to see … and it is gorgeous and spine-tingingly inspiring to look at. It’s Simon Annand‘s magnificent coffee-table book of photographs of actors preparing for the stage – in dressing rooms putting on make-up and creating characters, warming-up in sweaty t-shirts, standing anxiously in corridors in full costume. It tenderly captures actors’ private moments before going out to perform, that delicious time before heading out to do it – getting into the zone, hearing the audience enter, getting your five minute call, readying yourself. I love not just seeing the actors captured in their concentration, joy and suppressed-terror, but also all the lovely paraphernalia that makes a dressing room personal – “break a leg” cards, photo postcards reminding you of the mojo of the character, lucky teddies and tea-cups. Derek Jacobi napping at the Old Vic, Kristin Scott-Thomas getting her hair done, Benedict Cumberbatch checking his pockets. If you’d like to picture yourself working on Broadway or at the Donmar Warehouse or the National, this is a magic source of inspiration. (And just maybe, that vision will come true some day …)

Thanks for reading … hopefully you’re inspired to take a little trip to the bookshop …



10 Hypnotising Novels

10 Hypnotising Novels

One of the truly great joys I think you can have is reading a novel, whose story is so well told, you can’t bear to put it down, you’re excited to think you’ll be back reading it later, and when you’re in the midst of it, you are almost in a trance state, so deeply are you engaged in the narrative. Of course, this doesn’t happen often, and I guess that’s part of what makes it special. Here are a gang of novels, in no particular order, that have left me spellbound and I think are pretty darn special:


The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt is just an exceptional writer, sentence by sentence, page by page, which I found again when I read her latest book The Goldfinch, which was also utterly absorbing. But The Secret History remains one of my favourite novels – I remember being utterly captured by the first-person story of a young man who falls completely into the seductive world of a gang of charismatic, eccentric misfits at a fancy New England university, where mystery and adventure is key and the rules of normal society are cast aside for a superior world of ideas and experiences … until ultimately facing the dangers of crossing the boundaries of morals and laws. I remember its crisply formed ideas and gorgeous sentences blowing my mind, and whipping through the pages of its darkly thrilling story. Even now, when I see its simple black cover in a bookshop, I get a tingle of joy.


The Brothers K by David James Duncan

In what is surely one of the greatly underrated Great American Novels, the saga of a family is gorgeously captured. Compassionate, uplifting and deeply humane, it follows decades in the lives of the four boys in the Chance family, absorbing us in capturing key aspects of American life, of sport and big dreams, of religion and regret, of political upheaval and finding your own way in that huge country. Truly beautiful, its 600 pages will blaze by, and leave you with only a feeling of good soul afterwards. I still sometimes dream of setting up a baseball pitching practice area in a back yard, complete with target and a bag of stained old baseballs, like the dethumbed father of the tale.


The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar by Roald Dahl

More of a novella, I adore this Roald Dahl story, and can remember being plain gobsmacked as a young lad following its incredible but so believably told story of a rich layabout who learns to count cards from a yogi master’s teachings, and then goes on to use various disguises to cheat casinos and give the money to the poor. Its intricate playing out of the learning process of magically seeing through the cards, and the sweaty drama of our protagonist’s first attempts at a card table, are all brilliantly captured in Dahl’s unmatched clear and caustic storytelling. 95% chance you will read this in one sitting.


Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis

I have clear memories of being introduced to Bret Easton Ellis while at drama school, and devouring his books in the only reading time I had amidst long days and crashed-out nights – my rumbling bus journeys to and from Dublin’s city centre. I remember being aghast and utterly fascinated by his American Psycho, but in reading his Glamorama, I was genuinely hypnotised. I recall reading a 3-way sex scene that went on and on and on for pages and pages, and having to put the book down, not from arousal but just being dizzy with its imagery. And getting off the bus one day, I realized I was noting the brand labels worn by each passer-by, and rating them based on it, just like the protagonist in the story, and having to shake it off! Almost every Ellis book is like stepping into a dangerous dream – dark and absorbing and fearless and scary. But in particular, Glamorama just got into my head. Brilliant book.


The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Klay by Michael Chabon

Oh, how I love this wonderful book. The just joyous, joyous story of two scruffy New Yorkers, one a brand-new immigrant, a lucky and resourceful escapee from fascist Europe, the other a feisty Jewish boy battling his true nature, both of whom find creative bliss and magnificent purpose creating superhero comic books, in the Golden Age of Marvel and DC. This is a heart-tendering story of friendship and liberation, and of doing good in the world with the gifts you have, of simple heroism, against a background of the rattling radiators and bright lights of 40’s Manhattan, and the horrors of World War II. And if like me, you grew up on Spider-Man comics, you’ll just love how it delves into the world of classic comics bullpens. Excelsior.


Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Ah, Dickens. Though some may mock him as mawkish and obvious, when he is read, I dare you not to be deeply absorbed. The story of Pip and his rise through hidden benefactors to the stately London life, and how his life comes crashing down around him amidst memories of foggy moors and cobwebbed ballrooms, stays with me like a vivid dream. And I still choke up thinking of the scene where Joe comes for a visit in his patched-up Sunday best, and can’t work out where to put his hat. Magic.


The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I saw the film first, which I adore. But in many ways, the book is even better – even Goldman’s intro, which creates the colourful tale of how the book was “discovered” is utterly delightful. This fairy tale packed with hilarious humour, marvelous imagination and of course true love, is unputdownable, with all of its much-loved scenes even more vivid in print, with even more of a Grimm-tale dangerous darkness to fight against for our heroes (and heroine). Perfect to read to your ailing grandson.


East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s mighty tome is a spirit-lifting elegy for lost dreams, for surprising loyalty, for family longing, for tarnished relationships, for awful pettiness, for stubborn passion. It is full of characters in the Trask and Hamilton families that you will cry over, and its muscular storytelling is packed with wisdom, bravery and healing. Delve into it deeply, and you will come out thrilled with your journey.



Mr. Vertigo by Paul Auster

I am a huge fan of Paul Auster, adoring his cleanly-written stories of chance and synchronicity, of the power of names and numbers and addresses, of movies seen in cinemas and books written in notebooks, of fallible memory, of stories within stories, of promises made and contracts entered into, of New York in all its impossibility, and of baseball games, both real and conjured. And this may well be my favourite, his tale of a twelve year old boy who learns to fly from a mysterious magician. Even when I think of it now, its last page, I get a shiver.


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Aged 21, on my first ever visit to the US, on my J-1 visa summer in Cleveland, Ohio, I can remember writing in my journal, and being asked by my room-mates and fellow travelers, sweatily bored out of their minds in our AC-less, TV-less 1-bedroom apartment, on a weeknight of hot dead air and empty pockets, what I had written. To read it aloud. (I guess I should have known I was an actor then.) I did, and I remember very clearly what I read out. How even when surrounded by the grotty urban neighbourhood we were in, of biker bars with broken windows, of snarling cars shuddering our windowframes, of screaming and shouting in the night, how in reading The English Patient, it carried me away to a world of grace and desert light and dignity and sun-sparkled beauty. And it truly did, in Ondaatje’s spellbinding tale of characters smashed by the War, filled with profundity and heat and astonishing poetry, capturing fragile human life amidst the crash of mighty metal forces. Such is the power of a truly compelling novel.



10 of my personal favourite things to do in Manhattan (or a darn good day for Paul in NYC)

Being back in New York City for a couple of weeks there, a first trip back from Dublin after living in NYC for ten years, it was interesting how amidst all the amazing things to do there, I gravitated back to my favourite old haunts. So I thought I’d make a list of my personal ten recommended spots in Manhattan, and then realized this would make an amazing (if pretty packed) day in the city.

Warning: this doesn’t include any tourist book must-sees (no Met, Central Park, Times Square, Little Italy, Magnolia Bakery) and it helps if you love coffee, books and walking …


Presenting: Paul’s amazing day in New York City!

1. Joe Coffee on 23rd Street for your a.m. espresso


We’re up early into the brisk morning air, we’ve rode the subway (eek), taken the PATH train from Jersey (not so bad), rode a Citibike (watch your elbows) or taken a taxi (slowww), and now we’re smugly strolling through Chelsea past all the poor folks rushing to work (c’mon, this is a holiday for us, woo-hoo!) and into the warm, welcoming doors of Joe Coffee on 23rd Street and 9th Avenue at 9a.m. Sure, it’s a chain, but it’s a local NYC chain in baby blue, and this particular spot is the cafe I spent more time in than any other in the city (enough that they knew my order, possibly not a good thing), nabbing a lovely cappuccino before heading to rehearsals at the cell theatre. The coffee here is consistently great and they somehow manage to find sweet, friendly and generous hipsters to work there. If you’ve skipped breakfast, their rosemary scone is your new friend (that you’ll eat). Have a glance through the New York Times (and read the soccer articles on your phone), and enjoy.

2. Head north for a morning perusing the Drama Book Shop

dbsWe head out the door and west on 23rd Street to 10th Avenue, we’re heading uptown now, so why not use the Highline as a funkily pretty way to get from 23rd to 30th Streets. (As bonus, at the corner of 23rd and 10th, you’ll find the Chelsea Barbers, a great old-fashioned men’s barbers, where the hairdressers wear white coats and they play smooth jazz, a sanctum worth remembering for the next time you need your locks chopped). We’ll use 10th Avenue to get to 39th Street before cutting across to 8th Avenue, thereby largely steering clear of the belching ugly sisters, Penn Station and Port Authority. East on 40th Street and we duck into that wonder of wonders for any theatre-lover, the Drama Book Shop, at 10a.m. Let’s spend the next couple of hours perusing its shelves packed with more plays than any other bookshop, in the rainbow of colours that Dramatists Play Service print in, not to mention a huge array of books on acting, theatre and film, and let’s grab a couple and read a bit at one of the comfy chairs. Of course, you’ll be distracted every few pages by the expert staff pointing some young actor to a hot or obscure play where they’ll find a monologue just right for them, and you’ll just be surrounded by a constantly enchanting melody of people talking with love, snarkiness and passion about theatre. Almost as good as being on stage. (Almost).

3. Lunch at Piccolo Cafe on 40th Street

piccoloOkay, it’s 12.30pm and I’m hungry now. I could grab a tasty salmon tartine at Le Pain Quotidien on 40th Street, or a quick tuna baguette at a Pret a Manger, but you know what? I want something hot and tasty and cheap and … next door. So I step into the aptly named (cos it’s tiny) Piccolo Cafe, and order #1, a Fettuccine alla Bolognese (with no cheese, thank you very much) and grab a window counter stool to watch the world (and look at the vintage Italian newspapers on the wall). Pretty darn sharp, the pasta comes out, juicily steaming, and we tuck into its homey deliciousness. Yum.

4. Dessert is Culture Espresso cookies in Bryant Park

bryantOkay, I’m fighting fit for the afternoon … well, almost, let’s grab a cheeky dessert. Only one option here, you can leave your macarons and cronuts, let’s shally down to 38th Street and 6th Avenue, and join the queue (or to speak NYC, get in line) for the best chocolate cookies in the city. They are perfection: fresh-baked in-house, huge, crispy on the outsides, melty-warm on the inside, and frankly one of them is too rich for most men. If it’s a fine dry day, let’s grab them in their paper bag to-go, with your beverage of choice (flat-white, please), and head north two blocks to Bryant Park. Let’s sit by (or if it’s summertime on) the lawn, and enjoy my favourite park in the city, which somehow always manages to breeze midtown madness away and blow any of the city’s stresses off of me. Chill out gazing through the dappled branches of the trees, knowing that Batman definitely hangs out at night on top of that big gothic tower on the south side of the park. (Sure, Central Park is more awesome, but it’s also kind of a big deal, you have to explore into it. Bryant is quite happy to welcome you for a minute or ten. I think that would hurt Central Park’s feelings …)

*Alternate option when they re-open: the Cupcake Cafe on 9th and 41st, where you can get a great cupcake, artfully decorated with flowers, in one of the city’s bastions of old-school Gotham, with a grouchy, burly, white-bearded old barista straight out of a Hemingway bar, who queries your very existence but is also very happy to jollily natter about soccer, theatre, baseball and old movies. After your chat, take your La Colombe beverage and vanilla cupcake with chocolate frosting to a mismatched table in one of the nooks and crannies. And make sure you pull a good book out of your bag.

5. Take a breath in the New York Public Library Rose Reading Room.

rose-roomWell-fed by 2p.m., let’s take the afternoon for spot of cultural spirit-lifting. First step, nip around the corner of 40th Street to 5th Ave, to the New York Public Library. Say a quick hello to my two regal pals, the lion statues, trot up the steps (exercise done for today), up some more stairs inside (exercise done for tomorrow), and into the stunning beauty of the Rose Reading Room. Nearly 300 foot long, 50 feet high, it’s a great deep-breathing space, filled with a powerful quiet, a church of thought; it’s just the most marvellous place in the city if you need a great wooden table to sit and study at, knowing how many other minds have turned their cogs and scratched their pencils here in this mighty echoing space. Try not to squeak the chair as you leave …

6. An afternoon wandering in awe in the Morgan Library

morgan-library… and from one august institution to another: we cut east to Madison Avenue and down to 36th Street, where we enter my favourite museum in the city, the Morgan Library. Of course the Guggenheim and MOMA are amazing for modern art, you can get lost in the Met, and I also have a soft spot for the Society of Illustrators, but the exhibitions at the Morgan always seem to be about the inside track of an artist’s process and practice, which utterly fascinates me, and their acquisitions are astonishing – to see the crossed-out notes and crumpled drafts of great artists is just revelatory, such a gift. I’ve been able to see there the very handwriting and working ideas of Austen, Dickens, Shelley, Twain, Hemingway, Salinger, Tolkein; a first Folio of Shakespeare; sketches by Da Vinci, Lichtenstein and Pollock; not to mention the private letters and speech copies of great leaders like Churchill and Lincoln. And alongside these, you can go into two magical permanent spaces: the library which is like something from Hogwarts, and Pierpont Morgan’s imperious office, both amazing and atmospheric, fruit for thought in themselves. Always inspiring.

7. Al fresco dinner at Shake Shack on Madison Square Park

shack_mspOkay, it’s 5p.m., evening is calling, so it’s time to start heading back downtown. Let’s keep nipping down the relatively quiet Madison Avenue, until we hit the north-east corner of Madison Square Park. Mmmm, yes, I’m hungry too. Let’s walk south along the winding paths to the silver-grey shack with the sand and fairy lights, and get in line (this is New York, people) for a Shake Shack burger. Yes, there are other outlets in the city, and even in the airport now, so maybe it’s not so extraordinary. But (old man voice) “I remember when this was the only Shake Shack in the city, and it was only open in the summer. Arr.” And there still is something special about people’s excitement in the queue (sorry, in line) and then the buzz (the actual electric buzz of the alerting device) of seeing your burger is ready, and eating it out in the grassy open as the sun starts setting over the skyscrapers. (Two tricks: I never eat the last bite of a Shake Shack burger, for some reason it’s always disappointingly slimy-greasy. Put it down with a bow of respect to the other bites of salty-niceness. And don’t feed the squirrels. They’re NYC squirrels. They’ll just come and take your food. One jumped right into my lap once. Felt his claws through my jeans.)

(And if you need dessert after this, you can nip across the street to Eataly, where they have a nummy and adorable little tiramisu in a cup).

*I never claimed this was a healthy-eating day in the city. Look for low-carb options on Yelp.

8. An early evening perusal at The Strand

strandIt’s 6p.m. And the city is starting to get hectic again as people get out of work and head to activities in the bright lights. We’re walking down Broadway, past the Flatiron building, down to and through Union Square, and down to 12th Street, where we are welcomed by the red banner of the Strand Bookstore. They say it’s 18 miles of books, and its packed shelves, the top rows too high to reach (without a staff-member clambering up a ladder), and its second-hand nature meaning you’ll often find a book here that’s been on your list for ages that’s (a) out-of-print and (b) on sale. I’m always enticed and amazed by the depth of their theatre and movie book section; their comicbook section used to be about the level of an average yard sale, but it has improved dramatically; and I think a book lover on any topic – history, art, sports and definitely novels – will be in bliss caressing the shelves and likely to leave with a heavy bag. And they have great events with authors in their rare book space: I once saw Paul Auster (my favourite novelist) discussing Beckett there with Edward Albee. (Now that is an “Only-in-New-York” experience.) Yes, there are many great bookshops in NYC (such as the impeccable McNally Jackson, the super-knowledgable Three Lives, the sprawling Housing Works, or the dreamy children’s bookshop Books of Wonder, plus a shout-out to neighbourhood superstar WORD – can you guess I like bookshops?) but the Strand is a special kind of musty labyrinth joy.

(And if you get out of there a little early, a great next shopping stop is Blick art materials on 13th Street. So many lovely pencils and paints and journals and stationary. You may not want to bring your credit card in there…)

9. See a play at Barrow Street Theatre

ourtownbarrowOkay gone 7p.m., it’s the evening in New York, so that means: you’re going to see a show. (Phew, thankfully you already bought your ticket!) For some people, that would mean leaping in a cab back up to Broadway, and that’s fun, but my pick is for us to keep walking west on 12th Street, then south on 5th Avenue, cut through the NYU students and general amusing weirdos in Washington Square Park to head west on 4th Street until we take a left on Barrow Street, and arrive at the theatre of the same name. It doesn’t look like much from the outside – wait, is this a school hall? But once we get inside this magic little venue, intimately seating 199, each time set up differently, you know you are going to see a cracking good play, as programmed by Scott Morfee and Tom Whirtshafter (and maybe if we’re lucky directed by David Cromer). I’ve seen an terrific run of shows there: Cromer’s Our Town, Tribes and The Effect; The Flick; Every Brilliant Thing, each one intriguing, theatrical and impactful.

10. A jazzy, ping-pongy drink at Fat Cat

fatcatIt’s heading towards 11p.m., we’re pumped full of ideas – let’s grab a nightcap. We’re in the Village, the place is sprawling with bars – but let’s go to a personal favourite: a 3 minute walk up 7th Avenue and onto Christopher Street, then down the rickety stairs into Fat Cat. Sure, it’s kind of a dive, but where else can you grab a drink, play ping-pong AND listen to some pretty darn good live jazz at the same time? Scruffy greatness.


Right, phew, I don’t know about you, but I’m bushed. That good kind of tired from a full day. Time for bed.

Wait, where are we staying again?