New Jersey does not have the best reputation. Still, its nearly 9 million residents, as well as countless hangers-on—myself included—proudly claim it as our home state.
Not that we care if you're nice to us. But July 5-11 happens to mark "Be Nice to New Jersey Week." According to a 1997 New York Times article, the celebration began as a stunt in 1984, when the publisher of a humor magazine in Texas "concluded that there were more mean-spirited jokes about New Jersey than any other state."
You know you're in trouble when Texas makes fun of you. Like many jokes at New Jersey's expense, the Times article is now dated. In 1997, Continental Airlines was still in business, Sharpe James was the mayor of Newark, and Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor of New York City, was barking orders at his lesser neighbors across the Hudson.
Because we often talk about books in this space, I wanted to remind our friends in the other 49 states—Texas, that includes you—what we have given to America besides turnpikes and toll plazas. Here is a round-up of great authors who hail from the great state of New Jersey and our favorite titles from them:
Joyce Carol Oates: Raven's Wing
Many of the stories in this wonderful collection are set in, well, New Jersey. Oates tops the list because she was kind enough to hang around. And she teaches at Princeton University. Ever hear of it?
Judy Blume: In the Unlikely Event
My colleague Morgan loved this book, which takes place in the early 1950s, when a series of tragedies scarred Blume's New Jersey community.
Before delving into adult fiction, Blume wrote Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, thereby bolstering the self-confidence of generations of adolescent girls, several of whom grew up in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Junot Díaz: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao
Born in the Dominican Republic, Díaz moved to New Jersey with his family when he was six years old. He graduated from Rutgers University, which makes my colleague Gina proud, especially because her husband lived in the same dorm as Díaz—at different times. Yes, we New Jereseyans do grasp at straws.
Díaz has won a PEN/Malamud Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur "Genius Grant," among many other honors.
Mary Higgins Clark: The Melody Lingers On
This one is hot off the press so I don't know a thing about it. But my colleague Alex wanted me to include Higgins Clark, who lives in scenic Spring Lake. If you're thinking of visiting, it's Exit 98 off the Garden State Parkway. Admittedly, even my siblings and I considered the name "Garden State" something of a misnomer whenever we rattled past oil refineries in the back of a station wagon.
Ntozake Shange: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf
Born Paulette L. Williams, Shange is best known for her play, but she has written novels, poems, children's books, and essays. The guests in her childhood home included W.E.B. Du Bois, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and Dizzy Gillespie, which tells you that even icons make time for New Jersey.
"I like Jersey best"
Thanks to New Jersey's homegrown talent, you now have a stellar summer reading list.
I haven't even mentioned Springsteen. And don't forget jazzman John Pizzarelli. His instant classic, "I Like Jersey Best," was one of my father's favorites. (The song was actually written by Joseph Cosgriff.)
In the late 1950s, my father left New York City to raise a family in New Jersey. He never looked back—except when Sinatra or the Knicks were playing at the Garden. The chorus of Pizzarelli's song reminded him what he had known all along—that he had made the right decision:
The Pinelands and the Vinelands, Seaside Heights, Margate
You can have Miami, I love the Garden State
I've been a lot of places, seen pictures of the rest
But of all the places I can think of, I like Jersey best.
Take that, Texas!
Photos by Gina Asprocolas