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.

Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 1st, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 2/5 Characters: 3/5

Cate is a single, forty-something, lesbian, set designer in Chicago whose friends and colleagues have largely moved on. It is 2016 — Cate’s ultra-paranoid, thrice divorced, ex-husband is shacking up in her extra room; she is struggling to end an ongoing affair with a married woman; and a new girlfriend she sees as her best shot at adult stability is exhibiting questionable ethical behavior. In this setting she simultaneously experiences the “worst event and biggest break”: she rescues a friend during a violent and traumatic home invasion and is offered the chance to work on an exciting off-broadway play.

The book is beautifully written and the characters (especially Cate) are portrayed with great depth. While being a lesbian is not the point of the book, Cate’s queerness (her selection of term) informs a great deal of her thoughts and actions. There is not a lot of action — the home invasion takes place about half way through the book and itself takes up few pages. Instead, it is a thorough portrayal of her life — thoughts, actions, interactions, and world events — during a few months late 2016 / early 2017. I appreciated the scenes about her theater work (I wish there had been more) and the writing is really excellent, but for me there was not enough insight or character change to warrant the book length (without any compensating action). Things moved on in a very slow-paced, realistic, and ultimately unsatisfying, way. I found Cate to be a weak character, still struggling with the same issues (all completely under her own control) at the end of the book as at the beginning.

This book does have great lines — here are a few:

“Living casually in the moment seemed so vibrant, but has left her looking over her shoulder at a pile of used-up hours and days, hearing the scratchy sound of frittering.”

“She has come to understand that room temperature in the demographic she aspires to is a more personally controlled business.”

“The other customers exist somewhere else on the dining matrix, all of them in parallel, convivial but hushed universes.”

“Now, though, the cat’s out of the bag. Now the cat is hopping all over the place, demanding attention.”

“A heavy, standing ashtray is surrounded by a population of emphysemic ghosts.”

“Something delicious about all the secrecy. Now everything’s so in the open, we’re free from fear and oppression, but we’ve traded up for being commonplace. Queer’s as boring as straight now.

“She understand she has arrived on another side of everything. No one is over here with her.”

“Everything about him is aimed at the greater good, but in matters of personal kindness, he often comes up short.

“Her thoughts these days are not her friends. Which doesn’t keep them from stopping by, particularly at night when she is too tired to fight them off.”

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

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

A captivating book weaving together themes of family, opportunity, and morality as a Cameroonian immigrant family tries to find their American Dream in New York City.

Jende Jonga has just landed a plum job as chauffer to Clark Edwards, a senior exec at Lehman Brothers. His wife Neni helps Clark’s wife Cindy at home while pursuing her dream of becoming a pharmacist by taking classes at the local college. All appears to be going well, but it is 2008 and Lehman Brothers is heading for a fall. At the same time, the Jonga’s immigration tangle is becoming ever more labyrinthian.

Told in alternating chapters from Jende and Neni’s perspective, the author paints a thorough picture of an immigrant family and their motivations and interactions with a new world. The interplay between the Jongas and the Edwardses is a fascinating combination of the meeting of cultures and of specific individuals within the culture. Lots of reflection and insight into behavior which is what I look for. I love the way this book brings to light how ethical behavior is defined by individuals depending on their situation and personal priorities.

I don’t want to give away the ending — suffice it to say there is a lot of potential discussion topics for any good book club! The American Dream — the importance of family — the role of women — the morality of a given situation.

Great for fans of Exit, West.

Good Riddance by Elinor Lipman

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Feb 5, 2019

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 3.5

Daphne Maritch inherits one thing from her recently deceased mother: a 1968 High School Yearbook with regularly updated snarky marginalia. Newly divorced and living in a postage-stamp sized apartment in New York City, she tosses the tome and focusses on her “recovery project” — a course in chocolate making. However, thoroughly obnoxious neighbor, Geneva Wisenkorn, has another plan. Purporting to be documentary film maker (her main claim to fame is a Matzoh docudrama), Geneva has latched on to the yearbook (procured through dumpster-diving) as her path to fame and fortune. Thoroughly horrified, Daphne spends the book alternating between the shocking discoveries unearthed and trying to keep those discoveries quiet. She is helped by her father — whose move to New York fulfills a life long dream — and hunky across-the-hall neighbor, Jeremy, who plays a small part in the successful series Riverdale.

Entertaining and reasonably well-written with great humor. The plot is a little thin, and the characters are a little too stereotyped for my taste. We find out at the end that it’s really a (happy) love story though it doesn’t read that way from the start. I would have been a little happier if our heroine found something she actually wanted to do with her life rather than just find a boyfriend … but that was not to be.