Tag Archives: newspapers

Yesterday’s Papers

Tabloid City: A Novel by Pete Hamill (Little, Brown and Company, $26.99, 288 pages)

“Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press.”   Bob Dylan  (Idiot Wind)

Pete Hamill’s Tabloid City chronicles the experiences of old-time newspaper man Sam Briscoe, and his struggles to keep his paper The New York World viable in the modern era of overly-saturated electronic and cable media.  

The story is told in datelines, rather than chapters.   Written in three parts, “Night”, “Day”, and “Night”, it basically takes place over a period of a day and a half – not accounting for flashbacks and the storytelling required to fill in certain gaps related to the characters’ lives and relationships.   This obviously choppy approach, which attempts to parallel the journalistic style and mimic the pace of New York city and newsroom life, both hits and misses.   At the beginning, it is difficult to sense any flow to the story or understand how the characters relate or why they’re important.   Once this is established, the story begins to flow properly.

Most of the characters are detached and wanting for love and/or acceptance.   They find the drive to keep moving through external means.   Sam, who describes himself as  married to the newspaper; Malik Watson, a Muslim zealot; Cynthia, a wealthy business woman and socialite; etc.

Tabloid City will be a pleaser for some.   It is fast paced, laced with intrigue, set in Manhattan, and – after a bit of a confusing start, the middle of the novel onward is quite enjoyable.   At this point, the reader can read in short bursts or extended periods of time without losing track of the story, or interest in it for that matter.

The ending falls a bit short.   It’s hard to figure exactly what purpose some of the characters serve; and, while the ending of the novel is tragic and had the potential to satisfy most readers it does not do so.   It is a bit disappointing that some of the characters who were very prominent early on did not play a more significant, fitting role in bringing the story to a close.

Recommended, although for a select audience.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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A review of Tabloid City: A Novel by Pete Hamill.

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Don’t Dream It’s Over

The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman (The Dial Press; $15.00; 281 pages)

Perhaps the sub-title of The Imperfectionists should have been Related Tales of Dark Humor and Irony.   This is the fictional story of a second-rate international newspaper based in Rome, a poor cousin to the International Herald-Tribune.   It has never had any more than 25,000 subscribers and readers, and it has no website.   It is, therefore, doomed.

The Imperfectionists is not actually a novel but rather a grouping of eleven short stories concerning the wild and wooly characters who work at the rag before it enters its death spiral.   One copy editor is smart enough to depart early…  She finds an apparent life raft in the International Finance Department at the Milan Office of Lehman Brothers.   Welcome to the Titanic!

This may give you a bit of insight into author Rachman’s wicked sense of humor.   Rachman could likely write about anything – even a crew of sanitation workers – and make it sound interesting and engaging.

“You can’t dread what you can’t experience.”

The reporters and allied staff members at the nearly defunct paper truly dread – like they fear their own deaths – its inevitable closing, but they take some comfort in the fact that their pink slips mean they won’t actually experience the lights being turned off for the final time.

One of the opaque characters is a copy editor who simply pretends to hate her job because she loves it too much.   “I get to stay…” she thinks as she avoids a round of lay-offs, while grousing that she wishes they had let her go.   Then there’s the veteran war reporter who is completely nuts but quite successful (like the one my wife and I had drinks with once).   These gruff and nicked guys are far more interested in telling their literal war stories than in observing anyone’s reaction to them…  They’re a bit like wild animals whose press badge serves as their “If lost, return to —” tag.

The paper in question is owned by Oliver Ott, a man who inherited the paper and who is – quite naturally – completely clueless as to its operations.

“The paper – that daily report on the idocy and the brilliance of the species – had never before missed an appointment.   Now it was gone.”

Arthur Gopal, the often-pitied obituary writer, survives to find a plum job as a top reporter in Manhattan, while the publication he so carefully wrote for expires (“Overnight, the paper disappeared from newsstands…”) without the benefit of a beautifully written send-off.   Such is life.

The Imperfectionists would be virtually perfect but for an abrupt, flawed and somewhat frustrating ending.   Be forewarned.   Still, this is well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Lyon Books in Chico, California.

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A review of The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman.

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Dirty Old Town

The Vaults by Toby Ball

If The Vaults by Toby Ball is made into a movie, it will have to be shot in black and white.   A film noir mood permeates the City, from the desolate squatter camps in abandoned factories to City Hall, where heavyweight-boxer-turned-mayor Red Henry rules with a predator’s innate understanding of his opponents’ weaknesses.   It’s big-city America in the 1930s, the heyday of the newspaper, when deeply flawed men can become heroes by exposing corruption.   That’s where we meet Francis Frings, the Gazette’s star reporter, who’s working on a story that implicates the entire criminal justice system and threatens to topple Red Henry.

The hardboiled characters who populate Frings’ world – his lover, a sultry jazz singer; his hootch-swilling editor – are richly drawn.   Frings’ investigation, alone, would make a compelling crime thriller.   But his investigation is just one of three that threaten the mayor’s kingdom, and therein lies the genius of Ball’s novel:  Three “heroes” with vastly different motivations – and no knowledge of one another – simultaneously begin tugging on the threads of the central mystery.   Ethan Poole is a private eye with socialist leanings who’s not above blackmail.   Arthur Puskis is the rigidly methodical archivist of the City’s criminal files.   Mayor Henry lashes out at all who threaten his kingdom, his brutality kept in check only by the pragmatic consideration of public relations.

Ball’s writing is fast-paced and terse.   He rotates the action from one investigation to the next, and in the process, fleshes out a world of ingenious criminality, unionizing, strike-breaking, smoky nightclubs, and insane asylums.   The characters’ quests are provocative and timeless:  Truth, Justice and The Purpose of Life.   The book’s one weakness is the implausibility of the operation that Mayor Henry kills to protect.   But The Vaults is such a good read that it hardly matters.

The Vaults (St. Martin’s Press) is Ball’s first novel.   It’s a winner, and anyone who reads it will be standing in line to get his second.

Review by Kimberly Caldwell Steffen.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Making the Time to Read

“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.”   David Bowie

A female book blogger mentioned recently that whenever people learn that she writes book reviews, they ask a common question, “Where do you find the time to read so many books?”   It’s a good question, and one that I’ve been tempted to ask film reviewers.   “How do you get the time to watch so many movies?”   So, the question being on the table, let’s see if I can provide one set of answers to the question as it relates to reading.

First, it helps to be a speed reader.   I enrolled in the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Program when it was all the rage (John Kennedy and Jimmy Carter being two of its graduates); and once you paid the initial enrollment fee, you were free to re-take the entire program again and I did.   There were and are many misconceptions about speed reading in terms of what was offered by the Wood Program.   No reading “tricks” were taught.   The Wood Program was actually a memory course applied to the skill of reading.   One started without much confidence in one’s own ability to remember long passages but through constant reading and test taking (similar to mock SATs), Wood students learned that the brain locks in content quite quickly.   The Wood Program also illustrated the value of instinct as in learning to accept the rule that one’s first answer to a question is, generally and statistically, the right one.

The simple matter of gaining confidence in one’s reading retention abilities meant that a Wood graduate felt he or she could (and did) read faster, not worrying that it would soon be forgotten.   (There’s a parallel to learning a new language.   If you’re learning Korean, you will initially speak slowly and perhaps loudly.   With confidence, you’re speaking the language faster and in a more normal tone of voice.)

Second, taking public transportation to work and back home builds in periods where reading is relaxing.   My light rail trips mean that I have almost three-quarters of an hour each work day in which to concentrate on a new book.   In fact, if I don’t read while commuting, the trip seems longer, something that most airline passengers have learned.   (There are a lot of books sold at airports these days!)

Third, is to learn to combine a walk and a reading break into each work day.   The walk is good exercise and spending a few minutes reading is a nice reward before trekking back to the salt mines.

Fourth, if you skip watching the local and national news in the evening, you will gain another half hour to 90 minutes of reading time without the depression and angst which result from hearing – and seeing – bad news.   Life is simply more relaxing when valuable time is spent reading instead of tensely watching the tube.   And, of course, there’s more time gained by treating newspapers as an optional, sometime, non-essential activity.   As one of my former supervisors told me, if something truly important happens you’ll know because someone will walk up to you and say, “Did you hear about…?”   That’s when they supply you with the news you’ve missed.   It’s the way of the world.

Then there’s the certified trick of book reviewers everywhere, audio books.   If you drive yourself to work all that formerly wasted commute time now becomes valuable audio book listening time, and the same holds true for out-of-town trips for work or family matters.   This is why I will occasionally plead with a publisher for an audio book.   And there’s a related audio trick…  I used to listen to music on headphones virtually every night, but now that time is and can be reserved for audio books instead of listening to old Doors albums.

So, just like that I’ve covered six ways in which reader-reviewers like me create time (we don’t actually find it) in which to read.   Are there other tricks of the trade?   Of course, but as our wise old cat Munchy says, “Yeow!”   Translated into English this means, “There are secrets that go with the territory!”

Joseph Arellano

One article in a continuing series.   Pictured:  How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson, to be released by Plume in trade paperback form on July 27, 2010.

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