Tag Archives: New York City

Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

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One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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Songs in the Key of Life

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Small Admissions: A Novel by Amy Poeppel (Emily Bestler Books/Atria, $26.00, 358 pages)

I was anticipating this book to be a downsized version of The Admissions, an earlier-released novel by Meg Mitchell Moore about the pressures of getting a high school senior daughter – one living in Danville, California, into an elite college.  The Admissions was a funny and entertaining book, but it was also loaded with valuable information for real-life parents on how to attack the knotty college admissions process.

Small Admissions focuses on parents attempting to get their children admitted into a highly competitive pre-school/elementary school in New York City.  While it’s also humorous, I found it to be overly light – both in the manner in which it’s written and in the lack of substantive, useful information.  I expected more of the latter since the author previously “worked in the admissions office of a prestigious private school” in NYC.

On the plus side, this is a relaxing read – like watching a family comedy on network TV, or a film on Lifetime – and Poeppel occasionally gets off a good line: “Happiness is not a zero-sum game.  It’s the only case in which the resources are limitless.”  You may get better mileage and satisfaction than I did.  (Perhaps.)

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I Liked My Life: A Novel by Abby Fabiaschi (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 272 pages)

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is an honest-to-goodness ghost story.  Madeline (Maddy) Starling is a happy housewife and mother.  She has a successful husband, Brady, and a great teenage daughter, Eve.  And then, suddenly, Maddy is gone – by suicide.  This might be the end of the story, but it’s just the beginning as Maddy sticks around as a ghost; one who can observe what goes on with Brady, Eve, and other formerly-important figures in her life.  She also has the power to implant thoughts in their heads – such as the notion that Brady needs to find a new spouse to take care of him and Eve.

Author Fabiaschi, in this debut novel, makes good use of the notion that people tend to feel the presence of a deceased person after his or her passing.  Yes, there’s a touch of the plot used in the 1990 film “Ghost,” but the overlap is minimal.  And she writes well in a ghostly voice:

“Everything in our house looked perfect, which was awesome when I thought everything was perfect, but disturbing now that I know the truth.  It’s like we lived on a stage.”

And:

“Perhaps we all offer what we can, until we can’t, and then our loved ones step up or have others step in.  Perhaps death exists to challenge the people left behind.”

In her ghostly existence, Maddy finds that she’s on a timetable.  There’s only so much time to complete what she needs to get done – via earthly creatures, before her powers erode and she heads for her final destination.

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Surprisingly, Fabiaschi sets up an ending that we can see coming from hundreds of pages away.  Except that the book does not end that way.  Well played!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

Small Admissions was published on December 27, 2016.

I Liked My Life was released on January 21, 2017.

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Note: Another novel that deals in a semi-factual way (“Based on a true frenzy!”) with the college admissions process is Early Decision by Lacy Crawford.

 

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Fakin’ It

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Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt, $32.00, 415 pages)

An ambitious attempt that fails because in the end we don’t know who Paul Simon is.

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s. EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

Paul Simon singing at the Jacquard Club in Norwich in the 1960s.
EDP staff photograph. Ref: M1298-33A

I apply a key test to biographies of public figures. Does the book help the reader to understand who the subject is… What he thinks, what he values, what he seeks to accomplish through his work or art? Does the bio make you feel as if you’ve spent time with the subject? In this sense, Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon fails. Writer Peter Ames Carlin presents two quite different – often contradictory, portraits of Simon.

One Paul Simon is brilliantly creative, generous (he pays studio musicians two or three times their usual fees), open to helping others, and quite proud of his craft. The other Paul Simon must borrow from the music of others – what some might term stealing, is spiteful and/or vindictive, is a loner know-it-all, and is the son who failed to meet the role assigned to him by his father. (Louis Simon wanted his son to be a teacher rather than a musician.)

Unfortunately, Carlin does not take the initiative to tell us which Simon is the most real to him. Instead, he relies on a “fair and balanced” approach that tells us almost everything about the musician in 415 pages while revealing virtually nothing. It’s akin to reading a murder-mystery in which the author concludes the work without solving the crime. Thus, this is a frustrating work.

Carlin was hampered by the fact that Simon would not cooperate with this book, which is an unauthorized biography. Near its conclusion, Carlin presents a scene in which Simon – on stage to give a lecture, glares at him. Yes, Simon knows who Carlin is and clearly dislikes what he’s attempting to do.

This being said, the biographer of Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, and Brian Wilson offers some fine insights. We learn about the influence that Simon’s working musician father had on him, and there are parallels with the relationship between Paul McCartney and his father. It’s through Louis Simon that Paul was exposed to the Latin rhythms that he has often used in his music:

Paul could hear the echoes of the Latin dance bands he’d seen sharing the stage with (his father’s orchestra) at the Roseland Ballroom and the Latin rhythms and voices coming from the fringes of his radio dial, the sound of his youth, the essence of the New York that had created him and then, like his youth, slipped away.

As with his prior bios, Carlin examines in detail various recording sessions, songs and the inspiration for particular albums. But there are flaws. Carlin refers to Simon and Garfunkel’s performance in New York City’s Central Park as “a long day of rock ‘n roll communion.” Rock and roll? Paul Simon has produced a great amount of memorable music, but it’s a stretch to call it rock.

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There’s far too much included about the decades-long feuds and arguments between Art Garfunkel and Simon; so much so that it’s overblown and intensely boring. (Simon himself seems to wonder why on earth people care at this point.) And the case for Simon’s theft of music is pretty much non-existent. Let’s see, he borrowed a cassette tape with African music on it from a young woman who wanted Simon to assist her in recording similar music. She sought to borrow from – or embellish – the sounds of African musicians and was incensed when Simon did so himself. That’s not much of a scandal.

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A number of readers will undoubtedly find interesting the details that Carlin provides on Simon’s relationship with the late Carrie Fisher:

The divorce from Carrie hadn’t taken. They spent a few months apart, then started talking again, then seeing each other. Then they were back living together… There had always been something perfect about them when they were getting along: the way they huddled together, the way he grounded her, the way she could make him laugh so easily. And he loved her, with a desperation that sometimes frightened him… Carrie had taken herself to rehab to shed her drug habits, but drugs were only symptomatic of the manic-depression she’d suffered her entire adult life… Her depths were unimaginably deep, and Paul’s were nothing to sneeze at, either, so they clung to each other with a passion that could both soothe and abrade.

Beautiful words, but without Simon’s cooperation in telling his story, we have no way to judge their accuracy. One certainly has to wonder how this biography would have turned out if it had been authorized, and written with Simon’s assistance. Sadly, we will never know.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Homeward Bound was released on October 11, 2016.

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Don’t You (Forget About Me)

searching-for-john-hughes

Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know about Life I Learned From Watching ’80s Movies by Jason Diamond (William Morrow, $15.99, 285 pages)

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” – Ferris Bueller

“It was time to start paying attention, because I didn’t want to miss anything else. I didn’t find John Hughes, but instead I found the things I really needed.” – Jason Diamond

It’s rare to read a book about someone’s unsuccessful attempt to write a book. But that’s what this memoir is about. Jason Diamond spent years researching and writing a book about 80s film director and producer John Hughes. He eventually gave up his quest – which took most of his twenties – literally a couple of days before he believed he would meet Hughes in person. Then, to make things ever more tragic and dramatic, he learned that Hughes had died of a heart attack.

Hughes died not in Chicago, where Diamond was headed at the time, but in New York City. Diamond lived in Brooklyn. So the gods had clearly determined that Diamond’s hip biography of Hughes would never be published.

This would seem to mean that there’s not much of a story for Diamond to tell here. Oh, but there is. It’s the story of a person – all too common these days – overflowing with self-effacing feelings. All Diamond ever wanted to do was write, but his efforts never seemed to pan out. So he placed all his hopes and fears into producing “the book” that was to turn his life around. Of course, there were a few problems and obstacles along the way – chiefly that neither Hughes nor any of the actors in his films ever agreed to meet or be interviewed by Diamond. (As might occur in a bad film, Diamond did come into awkward contact with some of these actors in New York City.)

There was also the fact that the man who said he would be Diamond’s book agent never signed a contract to fulfill that commitment, never did any actual work on Diamond’s behalf, and left the business before Diamond’s bio draft was completed.

Diamond had to learn the hard way that one cannot spend one’s entire life waiting for something that may never arrive. It was only when he erased all of his work on the ever-unfinished Hughes bio that his life actually began. And, yes, this was a good thing.

While Searching for John Hughes does not in fact live up to its ambitious subtitle – it may have been more properly subtitled as My Search for the Ghost of John Hughes – kudos go to Diamond for summarizing the philosophy of Hughes’s work in brief fashion:

Life is full of constant sadness and the world can be a cruel place. Yet what Hughes offers in his films is the idea that one single day can be great, and that’s all you need if you live in the moment. That one day can turn into a second, and third, and many more consecutive great days. There will be pitfalls here and there, chemicals in your brain, tragedy that you can’t prepare yourself for, or tyrannical vice principals trying to hold you down, but the trick is to open yourself up to the idea that great things can just happen, that the good is just as much a part of life as the bad.

And Diamond summarized his own early adult life in this succinct way:

One day you think you have a great idea, then five minutes, hours, days – or in my case – years later you finally realize that it’s time to put it away. Sometimes you have to fail in order to succeed. If you don’t slow down, if you let your obsessions and anger and fear stop you from looking around, you could miss some really important things.

This is a quite enjoyable work by writer Jason Diamond. I very much look forward to reading his next release.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Searching for John Hughes was released on November 29, 2016.

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World In My Eyes

big rewind 2

The Big Rewind: A Novel by Libby Cudmore (William Morrow, $14.99, 256 pages)

Music was an emotion she felt at her absolute core. It wasn’t to dance or get drunk to. Music was represented by love.

The Big Rewind might be subtitled A Rock and Roll Mystery. Jett Bennett, a young woman in New York City who works as an office temp, receives a package intended for her friend and neighbor known as KitKat; the package contains a rock music mix tape. (That’s right, even though this story is set in the present day, KitKat was sent a Maxell C-90 cassette tape filled with music. “I’ve got a smartphone, but I’m not too young to remember the exact weight and feel of a Maxell mix tape. They’re just slightly heavier than a regular cassette, weighed down with love and angst, track lists thick with rubber cement and collage.”) When Jett goes to deliver the tape to KitKat she discovers that she’s been beaten to death. A young black man, a person who runs in the same city social circles as Jett, is arrested for the crime.

Jett feels instinctively that law enforcement has focused on the wrong subject, and she proceeds to do her best to find out who actually killed her friend. This may seem like an explanation of the storyline, but in fact the story is mostly about music. If you love listening to rock music, and you loved watching the film “High Fidelity,” the odds are that you will very much enjoy reading The Big Rewind.

Like the record store clerks in “High Fidelity,” author Cudmore has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern music and she has a great deal of fun showing off within the pages of this novel. The book allows her to express her love of certain rock groups, and also to enjoy tearing down the bands she is not so fond of. For example, in character as Jett, Cudmore writes:

I derided Mumford and Sons as being “like Flogging Molly if all the punk rhythms and talent was removed.” Ouch! This is the kind of comment that gets one unfriended if posted on Facebook. (But it’s fun.)

She also enjoys examining the psychology of those who made mix tapes – and who today may compile and share mix discs or digital playlists:

There isn’t a better feeling in the world… than acknowledgment that your mix tape was not only received and played but enjoyed. It’s a dance of sorts, balancing songs you think the listener will love while trying to say everything that otherwise dries up in your throat before you can get out the words.

If I recall correctly, in “High Fidelity” the main character states, wisely, that mix tapes display more about the person who put them together than they do – or did – about the intended recipient.

Libby Cudmore Synchronicity

Make no mistake, Cudmore can write and write quite effortlessly.

(The musician) Cassie wore burgundy Doc Martens with black tights and a flannel skirt; her dark-blond hair was crimped and pushed off to the side with a handful of clips. She was a relic of the last time music mattered, where a songwriter wasn’t some Swedish computer geek plotting song like math problems. Her silver nameplate bracelet and the necklace that matched were the only things about her that looked new and shiny. Everything else about her had the worn edges of a hard-won life.

And she writes quite effectively about her life-affirming love of music:

I thought about the music I had hoarded, my fear that if I heard the songs in the wrong place and time it might mean they no longer belonged to the moments I clung to.

The reader can relax in the knowledge that Jett’s going to solve the crime, even if she and we don’t know exactly when that will happen.

I put on Warren Zevon’s Sentimental Hygiene for background music and tried to put all the clues I had together, like assorted pieces from three different jigsaw puzzles. A secret boyfriend, a missing bracelet, a mix tape. I had the names, the locations, the pieces in play. I just didn’t know what order they went in to make the tiny paper Clue checklist that would lead me from her dead body on the kitchen floor to her killer standing convicted in the courtroom.

As with most successful mysteries, The Big Rewind proceeds on past the point at which the crime has been solved and the true criminal placed behind bars. Yet it almost does not matter, as the reader is having such fun being drenched in music comments and trivia. Cudmore, in fact, titles the final chapter, “Here’s where the story ends.”

(My boyfriend) put on Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” and I laughed, singing along with the “hoo hoo” parts like the Oates that I was.

Yes, rock lovers, this is your book. Libby Cudmore has passed the audition. As John Lennon might have said, “It’s good!”

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-big-rewind-a-novel-by-libby-cudmore/

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100 Miracles

100 buildings cover

A History of Architecture in 100 Buildings by Dan Cruikshank (Firefly Books, $39.95, 352 pages)

Architecture is an all-embracing adventure without end. It is a story that can never be completed as long as mankind continues to build, to invent, to discover; it is the story told by this book.

The modest dimensions of 100 Buildings place this book somewhere between two genres – popular survey and coffee table. What sets it apart from both is the serious, understated way author Dan Cruickshank sets forth his take on the place of architecture in the world. Specifically, he goes into just the right amount of narrative to bring the icons, pioneers of constructions and breathtakingly beautiful creations here on earth alive for the reader.

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The illustrations and descriptions are superb but not overly fatuous. After all, we’re using the perspective taken by a writer in 2015. Students of architecture have no doubt studied many of the 100 buildings. There are a few contemporary additions to the mix, which serve to keep Cruickshank’s history fresh and relatable.

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Sadly, there have been a few casualties of late in the Middle East. The power of architecture may well be lost on those who are lashing out. And, on a positive note, some nearly destroyed exemplary structures have been reconstructed. Most of the featured examples herein will be steadfastly holding their places in history long after we are merely dust.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on September 24, 2015.

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Real Lives, Real Medicine

In medical school, Matt McCarthy dreamed of being a different type of doctor – the sort of mythical, unflappable physician who could reach unreachable patients. But when a new admission to the critical care unit almost died during his first night on call, he found himself scrambling. Visions of mastery faded as he prayed to simply survive a brutally demanding and challenging near-year as a new doctor.

The Real Doctor

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly: A Physician’s First Year by Matt McCarthy (Crown, $27.00, 323 pages)

“After 10 months of being an intern, I no longer experienced life like a normal person… I now viewed everything through the lens of medicine. It wasn’t something I had planned or particularly wanted, it just happened.”

The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly is a very well written, engaging and entertaining look at what Dr. Matt McCarthy – a one-time minor league baseball pitcher who wrote the memoir The Odd Man Out – calls the “wonderfully insane” world of medicine. While serving as an intern in New York City, McCarthy was to practice – in the most literal sense – at both the massive Columbia/NYU Medical Center with 2,478 beds and the small 201-bed Allen Hospital (Motto: “Amazing things are happening here.”). McCarthy experienced a needle stick early on while treating a patient with HIV and Hepatitis C. In this sense, he became a patient himself, receiving prophylactic treatment and resting while waiting to find out if he had infected himself with one or both of these conditions.

McCarthy draws on the reader’s empathy by focusing not just on himself but also on two infirm patients: Benny, a middle-aged, seemingly healthy individual waiting endlessly for a heart transplant donor; and Carl Gladstone, a university professor whose life is nearly destroyed by a sudden heart attack. We see that, as with many things in life, luck and timing may override fate.

McCarthy goes from being a resident “who had been practicing medicine for less than a week” to a full-fledged hospital physician and Cornell University assistant professor of medicine. It’s an amazing journey, one well worth experiencing.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Note: If you enjoyed reading Complications, Better, or Being Mortal by Dr. Atul Gawande or One Doctor by Brendan Reilly, M.D., you will want to consider reading The Real Doctor Will See You Shortly.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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