Monday, October 21, 2019

"The View From Apartment Four" by Skip Rozin - On Loving and Leaving New York

Skip Rozin has captured the story of his life in NYC - and beyond - that satisfies like a freshly toasted bagel with a generous schmear of cream cheese. He occupied Apartment Four at 336 West 77th Street for almost fifty years - from the tumultuous 1960s through 2011. This book - subtitled "On Loving and Leaving New York," paints a vivid picture of all of the reasons why Rozin developed such a complex love/hate relationship with the unique metropolis that is NYC.

This moving book offers a look at the tension between stability and change. Over half a century, the cramped Apartment Four offered Rozin a haven, first as a home to a single young professional, then to a newly married couple. When Rozin and his wife brought triplets home from the hospital, they had to find a larger place to live, but he held onto the rent controlled Apartment Four as his office and writing retreat. Even when the family moved to Cape Cod, and he and his wife eventually divorced, he kept the apartment as his haven whenever business and nostalgia called him back to the city.

The author is a gifted writer, carving out a career in non-fiction that spanned the decades covered in this book. As seen through the lens of Rozin, his career, his growing family, we see a New York that changes rapidly while still holding on to its essence. We see through Rozin's eyes the iconic Dakota of John Lennon, Lincoln Center, the bagel shops and Zabar's deli on W. 79th, Needle Park, Central Park West, West End Avenue, Westside Highway. NYC is a city of distinct neighborhoods, and Rozin offers up a tantalizing potpourri of the sights, sounds, smells, and denizens of his beloved Upper West Side.

Through the microcosm of Rozin's life, family, and career, we see New York as a complex web of roots, transitions, and transformations . As a result of seeing the city through Rozin's clear eyes, on my next visit to NYC, I will walk the streets of the Upper West Side with a fresh perspective and appreciation of what was, what is, and what is still to come.



"Running With My Head Down" by Frank V. Fiume III - An Entrepreneur's Story of Passion, Perseverance, and Purpose

I am usually not a fan of the typical self-help book. I find the majority of them shallow and formulaic. Frank V. Fiume III has penned a memoir and self-help book that breaks the mold. I was captivated and inspired by his story. I think part of what made me like his style of writing is his transparency and self-deprecating sense of sharing the mistakes he has made along the road to success in the business world.

Fiume defied the odds by starting a new softball league in a part of Long Island that appeared to already be saturated with similar leagues. Most people told him he was crazy to try to compete - there were no fields available, the competition was already well established. But taking inspiration from the teachings of Tony Robbins, he took the plunge. While paying the bills by working as a medical device salesman, he launched a league that eventually grew into i9 Sports - "the nation's first and leading franchisor of youth leagues and camps."

Frank provides just enough detail to give a clear picture of the risks that he had to take, the bumps along the road, the moments of terror and discouragement, and the lessons learned through trail and error. The primary lesson for any discerning reader is that it is worth whatever price you have to pay to pursue your dream as long as you have the right support - from your spouse and from one or more mentors, and have a clear sense of your purpose.

This entrepreneur's story of "passion, perseverance, and purpose" is in a league of its own.



"Live Wire" by Harlan Coben - Another Myron Bolitar Thriller

I am a huge fan of the writing of Harlan Coben, and I especially enjoy his series that features former basketball star turned agent Myron Bolitar. As is the case with most of the Bolitar series of books, "Live Wire" features many of the usual suspects I have come to appreciate - Big Cindy, Esperanza a.k.a. Pocahontas, Win - and several interesting new ones.

The action in this book centers of Myron being asked to locate Lex, husband of former tennis star Suzze T. She is pregnant, and anonymous social media has cast doubt on the paternity of the child she is carrying. In the course of tracking down Lex, Myron stumbles on the trail of his missing brother and sister-in-law, and his teenage nephew Mickey. The arc of the narrative features Myron and Win wading into and out of trouble in NYC nightclubs, a private island retreat off the coast of Cape Cod, and various familiar spots in New Jersey, including the Bolitar family home.

The resulting book is a delightful page turner thriller, as I have come to expect from one of my favorite contemporary authors.



"The Relentless Rise" by R.T. Stokes - Break Through The Surface To Reach Your Greatest Self

Author and thought leader R.T. Stokes has written a very personal book that offers lessons from his own experience of almost losing his life and having to resurface as a new man. A U.S. Navy veteran , he draws deeply on his experience as a submariner to offer analogies of how running a submarine is akin to running a life under immense pressures.

After Stokes' car was blindsided by a suspect fleeing the police, he almost died and lost much of his memory, Determined to rise from the depths of despair, he returned to a world that he had known  - the Navy and submarines. Even before his was fully healed, he returned to active duty and reported for his assignment aboard the ship that was about to depart for its mission beneath the waves. As he began to relearn  "principles of operations" that allow a submarine to function under extreme conditions, he began to construct a mental model that the same principles apply in operating a life under extreme pressure. This book is the result of his fine tuning this model and these principles in the form of advice to readers.

The book is organized in two parts - first Stokes shares his own story of sinking and resurfacing, followed by seven chapters that outline Principles of Submerged Operations:

  • Position
  • Patrol
  • Power
  • Propulsion
  • Periscope
  • Ping and Pulse
  • Positive Buoyancy

For the most part, the model and the analogies work well. The author does an excellent job of helping the reader to make the connection between arcane aspects of submarine operation and the pressures of daily life. My only criticism is that he seems to work a bit too hard to force everything into an alliterative model, always opting to describe aspects of life in nautical terms. There are times when the attempt seemed forced. Overall, it is an inspiring memoir and self-help book that provides useful lessons for readers who struggle to rise to the surface of life after encountering rough seas and debilitating pressures at the depths.


"Talking To Strangers" by Malcolm Gladwell - How Do We Evaluate Those We Meet?

I always look forward to reading Malcolm Gladwell's books, because I never fail to learn new things. When I saw that his latest book was entitled "Talking To Strangers," I assumed that it might include research into the most effective ways to reach out to strangers in social settings. I quickly learned that the scope of his work here is much broader than that. He addresses the many ways in which we fail to read signals from strangers about who they are and what they are thinking and feeling.

As he always does, the author draws from a broad spectrum of real world settings to discuss the principles of communication and miscommunication that are the norm in today's world.  A through thread in this book is the case of Sandra Bland. This African American woman from Chicago was in Prairie View, Texas interviewing for a job at the local university. As she was driving away from the campus, she was pulled over by officer Brian Encinia, ostensibly for changing lanes without using her turn signal. The encounter, which should have been innocuous, escalated to the point where she was arrested for failure to comply with the officer's orders. Three days later, she hanged herself in her jail cell. Throughout the book, Gladwell returns to this incident to point out the many levels at which Officer Encinia failed to read correctly the signals that Ms. Bland was sending as she sat in her car, boiling with rage at having been stopped for "Driving While Black"!

Gladwell makes the point, in the the case of Sandra Bland and many others, that we often fail to perceive others correctly because of a mismatch between the signals that the suspect was sending and the interpretation that the officer attributed to those signals. The author eloquently summarizes the dilemma we face in meeting and understanding strangers:

"This has been a book about a conundrum.  We have no choice but to talk to strangers, especially in our modern, borderless world. We aren't living in villages any more. Police officers have to stop people they do not know. Intelligence officers have to deal with deception and uncertainty.  Young people want to go to parties explicitly to meet strangers: that's part of the  thrill of romantic discovery. Yet at this most necessary of tasks we are inept. We think we can transform the stranger, without cost or sacrifice, into the familiar and the  known, And we can't. What should we do? (p. 342)

Along the way, Gladwell uses a wide variety of case studies: CIA failures to discover a highly placed double agent, enhanced interrogation techniques, police training, date rape at a frat party, Neville Chamberlain's naivete in dealing with Hitler, Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme, Sylvia Plath's suicide, and a murder in Italy - each case highlights the many ways in which we think we know people, but really do not. As he often does, he draws from research in multiple fields: cognitive psychology, sociology, criminology, diplomacy, and economics. The resulting book causes us to rethink how we evaluate the strangers that we meet.



Monday, October 14, 2019

"The Middle Sister" by Jesse Miles - An entertaining Jack Salvo Hollywood Detective Novel - Where is Lille Manning?

Author Jesse Miles has penned a classic cinematic film noir tale of detective Jack Salvo's misadventures with three wealthy sisters living among Hollywood's glitterati and demi-monde worlds.  Rich widow Greta Manning hires Salvo to track down her missing middle daughter, Lillie. Older daughter, Zara, and younger daughter, Arden, separately provide the gumshoe with clues into Lillie's life that lead him into a fascinating set of encounters with the highest and lowest orders of Hollywood parasites.

The action often feels like the reader has been taken backstage in a Kardashian reality TV series. The cast of characters are memorable, including the likes of Cinnamon Strauss, former minor TV celebrity for her exercise show. Lillie's ne'er-do-well Ken Doll boyfriend, Rod Damian, is a likely suspect in her disappearance who must be tracked down and ruled out. The author gives us the requisite drug rehab connections, along with private and exclusive drug orgy parties high in the Hollywood hills. What Hollywood tawdry tale would be complete without a suspicious cosmetic surgeon to the stars as a key player? The story has more twist and turns than Mulholland Drive, and is a satisfying page turner read.



Thursday, October 03, 2019

"Inheritance" by Evelyn Toynton - An American Anglophile Learns Painful Truths about the British Upper Class

Author Evelyn Toynton has penned a novel that chronicles the difficult journey of an American Anglophile who learns that all is not formal gardens and primroses among the British upper class. After the death of her husband, protagonist Annie Devereaux moves to London without a plan except to come to know the England she has always fantasized about. She meets and moves in with Julian, whose mother is a renowned geneticist. Annie is soon drawn into the spider's web that is this spectacularly dysfunctional English family. As she visit the family estate in the West Country of England, she becomes involved with Julian's sisters, Sasha and Isabel.

As Annie ends her relationship with the abusive Julian, she draws closer to Isabel, who guides her through progressively deeper and darker layers of family history and tragedy. The irony is that Helena Denby, the mater familias of the clan, has dabbled in fascist eugenics theories, yet has produced a spectacularly troubled brood of her own offspring.

The author explores the question of what happens when fantasies and ideals are shattered by harsh realities? The book is well researched and well written, and captivates the reader.