Review: Ground Up, Michael Idov

This is a book about a couple who open up a coffee shop on the Lower East Side, with the notion that it will be an upscale Viennese coffee shop, with Viennese pastries and perfect coffee and loyal clients, and Mark and Nina will grow old together as the couple who owns the coffee shop, just like this other sweet old couple who ran a coffee shop that Mark and Nina frequented on their honeymoon to Vienna. This does not work out so well for them. The book is a really quite good satire of snooty New Yorkers (not that all New Yorkers are snooty; this is just a satire about the snooty ones), and y’all, I’ve been living here a year now, and this book put its snide finger on so many of the things that drive me batty about this city (though I love it in other ways also). Check it:

The catch of living in the city is that moving out, no matter your circumstances, always carries a whiff of defeat. At least that’s how your friends will see it. “Couldn’t handle it,” they’ll say over the westernmost decent cappucino in the United States. Couldn’t hack the boutique-lined, smoke-free mean streets: the fulcrum of an overprivileged New Yorker’s identity is the maniacal delusion that living here is somehow tough.

Oh my God SO TRUE. My old roommate worked as a producer for a cable channel, and every time she heard about someone moving out of the city, she would snort and say “Couldn’t make it.” It drove me batty. I don’t even know what that means (I feel like it is just a generic phrase people say in order to feel superior about their life choices), and I don’t appreciate the implied criticism of Future Jenny, who will absolutely be moving back home where she can have king cake and her very own tailgate and a car and good outdoors arts markets.

Idov isn’t attempting to write the Great American Novel, which is good because occasionally Ground Up veers into the realm of the absurd. But the satire is very funny and (this is key) precise. There’s the attempt to bourge up the joint (can that be a verb?) by doing a photography exhibit. There’s the couple’s overblown concern about using a brand of coffee that depicts a little black boy in a fez. There’s the incestuousness of the New York publishing world, which comes back to bite Mark (a reviewer for Kirkus) in the ass late in the book.

You know who I think would really enjoy this book? British ex-pats now living in one of those gentrified boutique-y Brooklyn neighborhoods where there are tons and tons of British ex-pat parents and tons and tons of slightly pretentious coffee shops. Because Ground Up is a satire about New York, but it features a very British-humor story arc of the sort typified by a show like Fawlty Towers, where everything starts out okay and then goes spectacularly to shit. Brits think this kind of story arc is hilarious. (Cf. the Mitchell and Webb bits involving Hennimore.) I think it’s hilarious for a while and then I get sort of sad and stressed because I hate it when plans don’t work and you have to make new plans.

Speaking of new plans, I finished all my Christmas shopping this past Saturday, and as always happens when I finish my Christmas shopping early, which is most years, I started having all these new, better ideas for people’s Christmas gifts. I had an amazing idea for one of my sisters. I had a pretty goodish idea for my mother, which I might just get anyway because I don’t feel good about the first present I got her except I know that’s crazy because the present is fine and I shouldn’t keep on spending money like there’s no tomorrow. It’s not good, y’all. I wish I could just shut my brain off. Meanwhile, the presents that are already perfect are so perfect that I want to tell everyone about them.

Speaking of absolutely nothing except it cracked my shit up and I’m going to forget about it if I don’t share it now, here is A Speculative List of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.

12 thoughts on “Review: Ground Up, Michael Idov

  1. Oh us Brits!;) We also don’t know what a tailgate is (at least I don’t, to me it means to drive much too close to the back of another car).

    Oh and present rebuying, I do that too. This year I couldn’t afford to do it and it stressed me out! On the plus side I am less out of pocket this Christmas than last (where I think I had spent half of my January wages before even seeing them).

    • Oh, a tailgate is this really brilliant kind of party you have the day of a sports event (it would be American football in my case). The origin of the word is that the parties would be based and around the open tailgate of a truck or car. But in my case we would have a smallish canopy, and a bunch of chairs, and we would all sit around and visit and drink beer, and Captain Hammer would grill, and we would eat stuff and be excited about the game. It would be amazing.

      I can’t afford to do it this year either! And mostly I have had sensible people with me to talk me down when the urge strikes.

  2. As an ex-New Yorker (but not a city dweller), I think I would find this very funny. Also, I am sad that I only got to the Arts Market once this month. Also, an Arts Market without an old guy singing the blues and old ladies selling teacakes and that damned woman who can’t answer a question about the price of a scarf without giving you the history of the art of weaving from the year Dot and an Arab-American woman explaining how she financed her trip to India to gather the astoundingly beautiful materials for her multi-media pieces by promising the art of their choice to her backers,…well. How is that even an Arts Market? 😛

  3. Oh yes, yes! SO can relate to the perils of Christmas shopping early, and then thinking up or finding New Improved Better Ideas for gifts! Gaaaaah!!!!!! And King Cake! Oh yes, yes! (although we can even get them in Tucson, which is especially bizarre, but do king cakes count if they’re not from LA?)

    • Ummmm, well, without seeing your particular king cake I can’t say. I don’t see any reason why a Tucson bakery shouldn’t make just as yummy a king cake as a Lafayette one! What sorts do you have? Do they have babies in, and the appropriate colors of icing? More importantly, why does Tucson have king cake and New York City doesn’t? Unfair!

      (Social Sister made me a king cake when I was home at Thanksgiving and it was hella yummy.)

  4. I always do the Christmas gift thing too! I actually gave my husband his present already because I was so excited about it, and wanted to make sure that if he didn’t like it, I wasn’t stuck with nothing good on the day of. So I bought him another, when he loved and exclaimed over the first one! I second guess my gifts every year.

    Also, this book sounds wonderful! I love snide reads, and when they are done right, there is nothing else like them.

    Very wonderful review, and Merry Christmas, my friend!

    • *cracks up* That is an excellent story, and if I were home all through Christmas season, instead of just getting home before the day of, I would totally do that. I have a few presents I am just painfully excited about.

      Merry, merry Christmas to you! I hope you have a wonderful holiday because I think you are really swell!

  5. So I am not sure where your review of Habibi went, but I wanted to say YES to your thoughts on super-rapey-ness in works of fiction being used just to show a) one character’s cruelty or b) another character’s trials and tribulations. Ugh. Use a different trope, please.

  6. I think I’d really like this book and must look out for it. Not that I have ever lived in New York, but I do like novels that really get their sense of place right. And I wanted to add about Habibi that I’d just read a review of it at Stefanie’s blog (So Many Books) and she felt very much the same as you – not a patch on Blankets. Plus, I know JUST what you mean about buying those extra ‘even better’ gifts. I almost have to tie my hands together every year about this time!

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