Sunday, June 23, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: "Palisades Park"--author Alan Brennert's ode to America's love of amusement parks is also an involving family drama

Palisades Park

Growing up in the 1930s, there is no more magical place than Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey—especially for seven-year-old Antoinette, who horrifies her mother by insisting on the unladylike nickname Toni, and her brother, Jack. Toni helps her parents, Eddie and Adele Stopka, at the stand where they sell homemade French fries amid the roar of the Cyclone roller coaster. There is also the lure of the world’s biggest salt-water pool, complete with divers whose astonishing stunts inspire Toni, despite her mother's insistence that girls can't be high divers.


But a family of dreamers doesn't always share the same dreams, and then the world intrudes: There's the Great Depression, and Pearl Harbor, which hits home in ways that will split the family apart; and perils like fire and race riots in the park. Both Eddie and Jack face the dangers of war, while Adele has ambitions of her own—and Toni is determined to take on a very different kind of danger in impossible feats as a high diver. Yet they are all drawn back to each other—and to Palisades Park—until the park closes forever in 1971.


Evocative and moving, with the trademark brilliance at transforming historical events into irresistible fiction that made Alan Brennert’s Moloka'i and Honolulu into reading group favorites, Palisades Park takes us back to a time when life seemed simpler—except, of course, it wasn't.


"Palisades Park" is a nostalgic homage to America's fascination with amusement parks, and it is given an extra poignancy by author Alan Brennert's childhood memories. Brennert grew up within a mile of the actual Palisades Amusement Park, which was located in Bergen County, New Jersey. The famed park provided entertainment and irresistible eats and treats for young and old alike for five decades, finally closing in 1971. Brennert's tale is the story of Eddie Stopka, whose childhood visit to the park would leave him with dreams that would last his whole lifetime. For Eddie and his wife Adele, and their two children Jack and Antoinette, the park was an integral part of their existence. Jack and Antoinette, who insisted on being called "Toni", work alongside their parents, helping them sell the famous salt & vinegar fries. Toni watches the divers at the salt water pool and longs to perform her own spectacular high dives. "Palisades Park" begins in the early 1920's and spans five decades into the early 1970's. The Great Depression, World War II, and many other significant social and political themes are interwoven with the compelling story of the park and the Stopka family. The author's descriptive writing places you right on the park grounds, experiencing the sights, sounds, and scents that are unique to American amusement parks. The salt water, the salty sea air, and the fresh, hot french fries doused with salt and malt vinegar are all yours to savor. I always loved amusement parks best at night, when the lights make them look like brightly lit, somewhat exotic cities. If you have ever held your breath in terror as you rode the rails of a roller coaster, and then jumped on again as soon as you could, you will enjoy "Palisades Park".


A Personal Note:

I could not read Alan Brennert's wonderful book, "Palisades Park", and gaze upon the beautiful cover, without thinking about my mother. Mama loved hot dogs, cotton candy, ice cream, bingo, and carousel horses. She never lost her child-like enjoyment of the contagious excitement of the amusement park atmosphere, and I am glad that she didn't! Hot dogs are the perfect Summer food--portable, plentiful, and depending on how you load 'em up--they can be a "meal-in-one". Hot dogs loaded with everything but the kitchen sink. Everywhere Mama and I traveled on our road trips, we found a little place that sold hot dogs. A hot dog, chips, and a cold drink would always hit the spot. PBS produced a delightful special program called "A Hot Dog Program":

(My mother loved this program so much that I bought her a copy)

"Let's be frank: Sausage connoisseurs will watch A Hot Dog Program with relish. Boiled, broiled, steamed, fried, or grilled, get your hot dogs here! A meal, a snack, a guilty pleasure, hot dogs are "as close as we'll get to a national dish," the narrator observes. And unlike their burger counterparts, hot dog stands have not become standardized or franchised. "They are still small, regional, and unique."   A Hot Dog Program tours the United States in search of establishments that inspire motorists to take hot dog detours, from the Super Duper Wiener truck located off Exit 24 on I-95 in Fairfield, Connecticut, to the Coney Island in Denver--33 tons of concrete shaped like an enormous hot dog. Viewers also get a taste of the local flavor served up by the Varsity ("What'llyahave? What'llyahave?") in Atlanta, Georgia, Superdawg in Chicago, Nathan's Famous in New York, and Pink's in Los Angeles, where legend has it that Orson Welles ate 18 hot dogs in one sitting, and where Ruth Buzzi makes a brief on-camera appearance.   A Hot Dog Program is a celebration of hot dogs and the people who love them ("It's the ultimate food," exults one diner), and who have made their hot dog joint their hangout from adolescence into adulthood, although those not stern of stomach may want to fast-forward through the sequence that shows how hot dogs are made.   For more time-capsule Americana, check out Great Old Amusement Parks and An Ice Cream Show. --Donald Liebenson "

"This fun documentary called A HOT DOG PROGRAM looks at one of America's favorite foods and shows some places around the country where you can get wonderful wieners.

From Coney Island on the Fourth of July (when Nathan's sponsors the World Hot Dog Eating Contest) to Alaska at the start of the Iditarod sled dog race (ready for a reindeer sausage?), we take you to some of the coolest hot dog places around. And we talk to some hot dog connoisseurs along the way.

In Chicago, the dogs are dressed heavily; in Macon, Georgia, the wieners are bright red; and in Las Vegas, they're huge. You can get a Super Duper Weenie in Fairfield, Connecticut, a deep fried "ripper" at Ruth's Hut in Clifton, New Jersey, and a snappy slaw dog at Frank's in Columbia, South Carolina.

You get true counter culture at the Varsity in Atlanta, giant orders of French fries at the Original in Pittsburgh, and famous chili dogs and famous folks at Pink's in LA.

It's a story of "Man bites Dog," topped with mustard, ketchup and countless condiments. It's a culinary cruise. It's a frank and funny portrait of America. It'll make you hungry for hot dogs."

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