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.