Generation Friends by Saul Austerlitz (Entertainment Industry)

A fun read for those of us who are big Friends fans (and apparently there are a lot of us). I’m not a big TV person — I don’t have cable, and usually just watch a single movie on DVD at night — but I loved Friends, owned all the DVDs, and it was definitely my go to in times of stress. I just never realized how popular it was with everyone else.

The book tracks the show from concept through the ten seasons to the offshoots, residuals, and “where are they now” recaps. Decent (and sometimes excellent) writing, a good structure, and comprehensive in scope, it has just the right amount of gossip and mixes plenty of pleasant recognition with surprisingly fresh insights. I also learned a lot about the making of TV — scheduling, showrunners, production companies vs networks, bidding wars, contract negotiations and some fascinating explanations of what went into the set and costume design.

I liked the first half better — the second half included a lot of bits that needed to be included to be complete but weren’t terribly interesting to me — one female writer’s hostile workplace suit, Matthew Perry’s addiction issues, etc. I didn’t always agree with the author’s conclusions, and sometimes felt there was too much episode recap, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed myself and learned a lot about how things work in an industry far away from my own.

Some fun quotes:
“Chase and Ungerleider had emerged from the same bookish East Coast Jewish milieu as Kauffman and Crane. Chase knew he could instantly summon that overly caffeinated, verbose, linguistically tricky voice.”

“Journalists pored over the results with the nuance of elderly Talmudists, intent on parsing the meaning of the message being sent by the American moviegoing populace.”

“Neither Crane nor Kauffman was familiar with the term going commando, but when the entire staff urged them to include it, asserting that their audience would instantly understand the reference, they acceded. (Eventually, the Oxford English Dictionary would credit Friends with one of the earliest recorded usages of the term.)”

“The world of Friends is notable, to modern eyes,” wrote New York’s Sternergh, “for what it encompasses about being young and single and carefree in the city but also for what it doesn’t encompass: social media, smartphones, student debt the sexual politics of Tinder, moving back in with your parents as a matter of course, and a national mood that vacillates between anxiety and defeatism.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Historical Fiction)

A beautifully written, meticulously researched, fictionalized history of the Kindertransport effort which managed to rescue 10,000 children from Nazi occupied Europe in the nine months prior to the outbreak of WWII (relocating them to England which temporarily waived immigration requirements for the effort. A similar effort in the U.S. was quickly quashed by FDR himself.)

We follow two narratives that slowly weave together: one follows Geertruida Wijsmuller or “Tante Truus,” — the Dutch woman who drives the Kindertransport effort from the politicking at home to the many, many, individual rescues in Europe. The other follows children and their families in Vienna who will eventually become part of Tante Truus’ transport.

I loved the characters — particularly the Austrian children. Clayton succeeded in making these children so bright and so real, their pain and determination nuanced and completely beyond the brief words I can find to describe them. Stephan Neuman — a 16-year old, budding playwright — and his five-year old brother Walter. Theirs is a highly cultured family, and I loved the immersion in the rich cultural world that Stephan inhabited. Stephan’s friend Žofie-Helene Perger — a mathematical prodigy whose non-Jewish mother is a journalist who speaks out against the Nazis putting herself and her family at great risk. And how can you not love Tante Truus who literally can’t bear to think about a child getting left behind if there were anything at all she could do to prevent it.

The real brilliance of Clayton’s book lies in the meticulous portrayal of the many tiny details that comprise life at that time — the underground tunnels, the linotype machines, and mouthwatering descriptions of the chocolatier’s trade. Hovering like a black cloud over these small details, the progressive hardships and changing attitudes of neighbors and friends, the slow shame that creeps up on children who are suddenly treated as different, the insidious and constant fear, disbelief, and tension that inhabits every moment. At the same time, the macroscopic details of global policies — the committees, the bureaucracy, the movements, and the fear on the part of foreign populations and governments as they slowly turn their backs on what was happening to the Jews (and other undesirables) in Europe as the Nazis plow their way through the continent. The book is utterly gripping.

For me, this is the best of the recent spate of WWII / Holocaust books: it felt incredibly real, and I was surprised to learn new things about a topic in which I’m quite well-read. I appreciated that the ultimately uplifting story was focused on survival and rescue, rather than the horrors and despair of the camps. A surprising extra: enduring the frustration (with our characters) of watching countries closing their borders to such desperate need (even though Jewish societies had offered financial support to ensure that host countries would not bear the costs) gave me a new perspective on the refugee crises facing the world today.

Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

Red Birds by Mohammad Hanif (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5 /5 Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4/5

A satirical and somewhat surreal modern day Mouse That Roared taking place in an unnamed desert refugee camp in a place where Americans are simultaneously active in both destruction and Aid. A US pilot crash lands in the desert outside the very camp he was meant to bomb. He is rescued by 15-year old Momo — a singular character — crafty, entrepreneurial, and utterly focussed on finding his brother “Bro Ali” who disappeared into the mysterious Hangar at the center of camp and never returned. The narrative cycles between the first person perspectives of these two and Momo’s dog Mutt. Yes — the dog is one of the narrators and is by far the most erudite of the three, serving as a more abstract philosophic commentary on the action and The Way Things Are. Only Mutt sees the red birds who suddenly appear off in the corners as a bit of emphasis on events.

Other characters represent types: Doctor cares only about saving the Desert and not too much about the humans. An American aid worker — nicknamed Lady Flowerbody — wants to save the world — as long as she has a sufficient supply of Perrier. She is pursuing a PhD on the topic of the Teenage Muslim mind. Momo goes along with it — he has been studied many times for studies like ‘Growing Pains in Conflict Zone,’ ‘Tribal Cultures get IT,’ and even ‘Reiki for War Survivors.’

The writing is beautiful. At heart are themes on the importance of being loved and not forgotten, at living a life of significance, and the deep and individual horrors of war and craziness of America’s policy. This quote kind of sums it up — as the pilot thinks of his own American role juxtaposed with that of Lady Flowerbody he says: “If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she save that place? If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground? Why would you need somebody to throw blankets on burning babies if there were no burning babies? If I didn’t take out homes, who would provide shelter? If I didn’t take out homes who would need shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, how would you get to set up refugee camps? Where would all the world’s empathy go? Who would host exhibitions in the picture galleries of Berlin, who would have fundraising balls in London? Where would all the students on their gap years go? If I stop wearing this uniform and quit my job, the world’s sympathy machine will grind to a halt.”

I loved the writing and the story was intriguing, hovering at the border of reality. The satire was apt although by nature left out any positive attribute about Americans and American aid. The tone was not depressing, although the subject matter and conclusion certainly was if you settle back from the tone and examine what lies underneath.

Other great quotes:

“For every wad of cash being pocketed, for every sack of grain or sugar being stolen there is a pile of paperwork to prove that it’s not being stolen.”

“They had trained themselves to be brave, they were ready to lay down their lives for their God and country but they didn’t know that bravery comes with a high noise levels and then an abrupt silence that lasts forever. You can’t be brave when you are dead. And then promptly forgotten.”

“She has the air of a permanent do-gooder who will just leave when they stop feeling good about doing good.”

“Making some moolah and thanking our creator is the only ideology that works here.”

“I can tell you that if he is a spy he is not very good at it. He is the kind of spy who wishes that they owned a cafe and ran a book club.”

“When my folks don’t have a real explanation, they blame it on war. As if before the war we were all a brotherhood and didn’t throw our trash into our neighbor’s yard. As if war gave us bad breath and crude manners. “

“Three parallel wrinkles on her forehead speak of an intelligent mind. The ones who came before her never smelt this nice. And they stopped coming anyway when the Hangar shut down. It was simple, they bombed us and then sent us well-educated people to look into our mental health needs.”

“Sad mothers are made of compulsive, reckless optimism.”

Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs (Memoir)

Writing: 5/5 Story: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A surprisingly good memoir — well-written with astute observations, reflections, and analyses. A true memoir in that all other characters — portrayed with the same detail and depth as the author herself — were viewed strictly through the lens of the author at different stages of her life. I frankly expected this would be yet another book capitalizing on someone’s proximity to fame (in this case her father — Steve Jobs), but while Jobs figured prominently in the narrative, he and the other figures (her mother, other relatives, neighbors, and friends) were present primarily to show how they influenced the shape of her life.

It was an excellent portrayal of life in the Palo Alto area in the late 80s and 90s with stark contrasts between life with her struggling, itinerant, arty, mother and time with her father in enormous unfurnished mansions. References to local institutions such as Hidden Villa, Draegers, Nueva School, Tassajara, and general locations are a lot of fun for those of us who are local. This picture of Palo Alto as an affordable haven for hippies and artists is a real kick given the current cost of living index of 613.5 (the US average is 100) and median home price of $3.1 million.

Overall, I read this as a memoir about the way parents can shape a child, for better or worse. The specific descriptions of interactions paired with the corresponding internal feelings and reactions and Lisa’s growth and shifts over time were remarkably well-done and fascinating to read. That some of the influential characters were famous was not nearly as interesting as the insight into the way each individual behaved and interacted with Lisa growing up (very little name dropping which I appreciated — this is not a jealousy inducing book by any means).

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf (Children’s Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 3/5

This is a British story about the Syrian refugee crisis — focused on one small boy and given a fairy tale ending. 9-year old Alexa gets excited from the first moment she sees the new boy — Ahmet — sitting quietly at the back of the room. She and her three friends befriend him and are introduced to his plight just as the UK is moving to stop the flow of refugees completely by “closing the gates.” Alexa conceives the “MOST AMAZING PLAN” (backed up with an “Emergency Plan”) to help keep the gates open, help Ahmet find his family, and deal with the “haters” of the world (with clearly marked names such as “Mrs. Grimsby” in case you are in doubt as to who they are).

The book is sweet and does an excellent job of portraying the refugee crisis in real human terms by describing one boy’s very sad situation. I do feel that the story was oversimplified and did not like the way everyone was depicted (literally) as “good guys” and “bad guys.” While I support trying to find a real solution to refugee problems, this book was written as a very heavy handed propaganda piece. Anyone who doesn’t absolutely support unlimited refugee immigration is labeled (literally) a “bully,” a “hater,” “heartless,” “selfish,” and by implication stupid, and irrational. I don’t think that was necessary — it would have been just as effective a book if she had focussed on one young refugee’s experience, the way the kids had helped bring attention to his plight, and some positive messages about how refugees can be helped and integrated into society, without including all the nasty labels and overly simplified and often inaccurate portrayals of those with other opinions.

A child in the class — “Brendan the Bully” — is portrayed as a terrible boy with no possibility of education or redemption. And when explaining what is happening in Syria, Alexa’s mother explains: “The bad people are just much stronger than they are and like to feel big and powerful by bullying them. You see, some people think that by taking things away from other people and hurting them, it gives them more power, and the more power they have, the more they want and the greedier they get. So they go on hurting more and more people until everyone wants to run away.” Is that really an accurate description of the Syrian civil war? I don’t think so — and I think that oversimplifying problems for children by blaming and labeling whole groups of people as simply irredeemably bad is a very dangerous proposition.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 6th, 2019.

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper (Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Loved this book!

Andrew Smith works in Death Administration. His unenviable (and often malodorous) job: property inspections of the recently deceased to find funds or friends to help the local council escape paying for the obligatory “Public Health Funeral.” He feels compassion for those dying in such lonely ways — possibly because he is heading that way himself. His own social connections consist of a distant sister, an anonymous group of online train enthusiasts, and a very comforting, but completely imaginary, wife and children. When he has a chance to make a real friend, he struggles with how to extricate himself from this long-lived and thoroughly detailed fabrication.

This is a feel-good book about friendship, connection, and how people get lost … and found again. Effortlessly great writing (at least it appears effortless). I particularly enjoyed the ambient social commentary and the interactions between good characters.

One of the few books compared to Eleanor Oliphant that actually deserves the comparison.
A few writing samples:
“He’d thought having only just turned forty-two he’d have a few more years before he began accompanying minor physical tasks by making odd noises, but it seemed to be the universe’s gentle way of telling him that he was now officially heading toward middle age.”

“Andrew could think of many things he’d rather be doing that evening — most of them involving his testicles, some jam and some aggrieved hornets — but he suddenly felt a rather strong urge not to disappoint Peggy.”

“When it came to model trains, one of the most satisfying simple things Andrew had learned was that the more you ran a locomotive, the better it performed. With repeated use, an engine starts to glide around the track, seeming to grow in efficiency with every circuit. When it came to making connections with people, however, he was less of a smoothly running locomotive and more a rail replacement bus rusting in a rest stop.”

“After said shunt finally materialized, Andrew and Peggy hauled their bags off the train along with a few hundred other passengers traveling back that Saturday whose phasers were all set to “grumble,” only to be elevated to “strongly worded letter” when they were told it would be forty minutes before a replacement train could get there.”

“His shoes were well-polished but starting to look worn. Too many nicks from churchyard gravel, too many times the leather had strained where he’d curled his toes at a vicar’s verbal stumble.”

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A strange and captivating book that gets better and better with each page. Six-year old Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) misses her mama who is “confused” and has been taken someplace to help her feel better. With the help of her imaginary friend — a large bear named Teddy — and her slightly older and more confident neighbor Hannah, Aoife sets off to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder with the childish logic that this will allow her mother to come home again.

Aoife is the most compelling of narrators — her mind is young and she has been kept uninformed about the big issues facing the family (as is typical of six-year olds). She tells her story piece by piece, describing events and her interpretation of them in an utterly convincing manner — her mother’s “confusion,” visits from cee pee ess (child protective services), and the explanations her Uncle Donnie, Father Paul, and her mother’s “special friend” Mac give in answer to her questions.

A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world. A surprising and well-structured plot, good writing, and well-drawn characters as depicted from Aoife’s perspective. Understated themes of mental illness and what it means to be crazy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 10th, 2019.