Tag Archives: the City

Down the Drain

Beer-Money-Cover

Beer Money: A Memoir of Privilege and Loss, & The Decline of a Detroit Dynasty by Frances Stroh (Harper, $25.99, 336 pages)

“The house (my father had purchased in New York City when I was six) and most of its contents would soon be gone, just as the brewery was. We’d somehow allowed ourselves to be pinned into place by these things; and in our search for freedom, some of us had self-destructed.”

Despite the title, this poor little rich girl memoir offers no insight into the brewing industry. That’s because Frances Stroh, a one-time partial heir to billions of Stroh Brewery dollars – all of which vanished into thin air, was far removed from the family’s management (and mismanagement) of the company. As with most of these memoirs, Frances did not realize early on how rich her family was. In her bored teen and early adult years she carelessly used and abused alcohol and drugs. And as a grown-up she learned to mourn the fortune she would never acquire.

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However, the rich are different. Even as Frances writes about Stroh’s going down the drain, she makes sure to inform the reader that she flies first class; she lives in a fine abode in San Francisco. And when her spendthrift brother came to visit her in The City, he’d rent out entire floors of swank hotels for parties and feast on the best food and drink from room service.

Stroh’s was a “beer giant… in the eighties and nineties…” But Frances has no explanation for the Detroit company’s rapid downfall other than to admit, “we’d simply blown it.” Indeed.

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Beer Money is a pointless, meaningless tale of privileged denial.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Note: According to Forbes magazine, the Stroh Brewery Company blew through $9 billion in profits. That’s a lot of beer money.

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Book Lovers

My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, edited by Ronald Rice (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, $23.95, 384 pages)

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In My Bookstore, edited by Ronald Rice, numerous authors pay tribute to their favored bookstores, which are usually, but not always, the ones located near their homes. Eighty-one bookstores are examined, including three of the best, essential bookstores — Powell’s Books of Portland, Vroman’s Bookstore of Pasadena, and the University Book Store in Seattle (across from the University of Washington). Chuck Palahnuik explains that the city-block sized Powell’s is divided into color-coded rooms and “…each of these rooms is the size of most independent bookstores.”

Californians will be pleased to see that ten of the state’s bookstores, including two in San Francisco, are lovingly described here. (But San Franciscans will be shocked to find that both City Lights Books and Dog Eared Books are excluded.) Only 3 of these “favorite places to browse, read, and shop” happen to be in southern California. The underlying message of these accounts is that one-on-one service counts. These private businesses have thrived and survived the onslaughts of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and now-departed mega-chains.

This collection of essays will no doubt cause some to visit bookstores that they were previously unaware of. And perhaps at some point Mr. Rice will ask book reviewers to write about their favorite places, and this reader will shed a light on Orinda Books and Lyon Books of Chico.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: City Lights Books is located at 261 Columbus Avenue at Broadway in San Francisco. Dog Eared Books is located at 900 Valencia Street in the Mission District of The City. Both are worth paying a visit to.

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It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Trail of the Spellmans: Document #5 by Lisa Lutz (Simon and Schuster, $25.00, 373 pages)

I decided that sitting in a stairwell all night eavesdropping on a conversation in my own home was undignified, so I searched the office for a recording device that I could plant just outside the door.   Then I could listen from the luxury of the office.   Much more dignified.

Wacky, ironic, self-aware and irreverent are adjectives that sum up Isabel Spellman who is the narrator of the rather rambling and highly-entertaining journal of her family’s detective agency activities.   Their headquarters at 1799 Clay Street in San Francisco, California, also happens to be the family home.   Although this address is not really that of a home in San Francisco (a check of Google Earth confirms this fact), there are ample real locations in The City to validate Ms. Lutz’ familiarity with the locale.   She even goes so far as to disguise the name of a bakery in the Mission that has long lines in the hope that its fame will not be expanded by disclosure in the book.   My bet is that she’s referring to Tartine Bakery & Cafe at 600 Guerrero Street.

A family business like the Spellman’s presents opportunities to create intrigue and internal clashes.   The mix is enlivened by the presence of Demetrius Merriweather, a recently-released and wrongfully-convicted 43-year-old man, whose freedom after 20 years of incarceration is attributed to the efforts of the Spellmans.   When Grammy Spellman moves in, the family dynamics are tweaked beyond their usual passive-aggressiveness.

Lisa Lutz has enhanced the charm of this, her fifth book of the Spellman series, with illustrations and an appendix that includes background information on the characters, as well as documents referenced in the body of the story.

This reviewer caught herself laughing out loud on numerous occasions while reading this book.   Perhaps it’s time to read the rest of the series.   Hearty laughter is always a welcome accompaniment to a clever tale.

Highly recommended.

Ruta ArellanoTrail of the Spellmans (nook book)

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The full title of the single from R.E.M.’s Document: R.E.M. No. 5 album is “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”   Another hit from that album was “The One I Love.”

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Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)

How to Eat a Cupcake: A Novel by Meg Donohue  (Harper, $13.99, 320 pages)

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This debut novel by Meg Donohue is set in San Francisco (the author’s home), and tells the tale of the young Annie Quintana who dreams of opening a bakery specializing in fine cupcakes.   Her dream is set to come true because the wealthy Julia St. Clair is willing to fund the business.   The problem is that Julia was once Annie’s best and worst friend (Annie’s mom having worked as a housekeeper for the St. Clairs).

Donohue paints The City as a place where folks engage in massive quantities of eating and drinking, and she does a great job of making various locations – including the largely Hispanic Mission District – come to life.   It’s likely that a number of male readers will, however, find this tale to be a bit too sweet in the telling for their taste.   But female readers may willingly be caught up in the knotty struggles of X chromosomal relationships.   How to Eat a Cupcake winds up being a type of psychological mystery in which the reader wants to find out what happens at the end.

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Donohue displays a gift for dialogue in the debut and a certain sense of stylistic charm, but it’s hoped that she stretches herself a bit more in her next release.   (Perhaps her next novel will be set in Clovis?)

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Beautifully written and quietly wise…”   Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow.

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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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