Review – Ghosts of Manhattan

I’ve always loved the movie Wall Street. There’s something so fascinating, annoying, hateful, and sad about Gordon Gekko. He’s a car wreck I can’t stop gaping at. And, yes, I like the sequel, Money Never Sleeps too. Who doesn’t want more Gordon Gekko?

When I was offered the chance to review Ghosts of Manhattan, I took it. I, apparently, want more Gordon Gekko.

Nick Farmer is a bond trader at Bear Stearns and he hates his job. Any novelty it once held has long since faded along with any interest in the parties, drugs, and hookers. Those bonuses, though, are what keep him going back to the office every day. He’s married, but after several years, is realizing that he barely knows his wife anymore and he isn’t sure he even wants to know her any longer. The job is taking a toll not just on him but his wife and their marriage as well. When Nick is approached by a paranoid analyst who is scared of what his research foretells, Nick starts wondering if the right time to get out is now.

Nick is a character I want to feel bad for. He hates his job, the people and corporation he works for, the lazy ethics of the place, and the lifestyle he, for better or worse, has become accustomed to. On top of all this, his personal life is falling apart. On the other hand, he does nothing at work, drinks, does a little cocaine from time to time in New York’s finest bathrooms (they have floor to ceiling stall doors if you must know), and charges back thousands upon thousands of dollars to absurd expense accounts without even blinking. That’s what made me want to scream at this book but I also kept reading because of it. It’s hard to understand that type of money. Absurd isn’t even the word to describe it. Insane maybe but even that’s not enough. But I wanted to see how deep that hole went and how far Nick was willing to fall into it. The answer to that is pretty far. Sadly, he knows it but keeps going.

But Nick is also a likable character. As I said, he hates his job and his personal life is circling a large drain ready to suck him into a vast hell. He knows it but doesn’t do much about it, which is probably best since anytime he tries, he fails miserably. He’s a good at heart with some decent intentions but has yet to figure out how to wield anything positive.

The world Nick lives in, almost unwillingly (he doesn’t know how to get out until he has to), isn’t his fault though and I’m not giving the character an out here. He has his bad, maybe even reprehensible moments, but there’s something about him that seems redeemable and that I could work with. I like to like characters in books, and Nick has a likable side under all the grime.

I know some of you may be thinking about this book in terms of Wall Street only, and that’s not the best way to approach this one. Yes, the main part of the story surrounds Nick’s job and there are numerous hateful people in his circle doing numerous hateful things, but there are some nice moments, some funny moments, and in the end, a new beginning. I liked that about this one.

Also, now the theme song to Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is stuck in my head.

The publisher sent me a copy of Ghosts of Manhattan for review.

Ghosts of Manhattan
By Douglas Brunt
Touchstone
ISBN: 978-1451672596
4 stars

Review – The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder in the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

I read several reviews of this book, put it on my list, and promptly forgot about it. Unfortunately, this happens with many of the books I put on my list. They linger. Fortunately for The Poisoner’s Handbook, I came across it while scanning the shelves at my favorite bookstore one afternoon. It’s a fascinating recounting of the beginnings of the coroner’s office in New York City during Prohibition.

In a city full of corrupt officials, one man manages to change the face of detective work, create what many might consider to be the modern medical examiner’s office, and invent ways to detect even the smallest amount of poison to prove murder. The story of Charles Norris is interspersed with his cases — cases that all have one tie — poison. Before his work as medical examiner, poison was easy to acquire, easy to use, and very difficult to detect. That soon changed when Norris’s methods were put to use.

What surprised me most was just how much poison was a part of everyday products: cosmetics, medicine, and in the case of radium, even considered healthy. People drank it which baffles me. Even Marie Curie used to carry a small vile of radium in her pocket believing it was completely harmless. I found the story about the women working in the clock factory painting watch faces with radioactive paint for the men on the battlefield especially fascinating. What happened to the women was absolutely horrific and the work of Norris and the men in his office to find out what was happening to them was sort of heroic in a way.

A good portion of the book focuses on alcohol and it’s replacements during Prohibition. What people will drink for a high is both disgusting and interesting. I would never in my wildest dreams ever even think of sniffing the stuff let along drinking it. It was a crazy time and I loved the fact that the New York Medical Examiner argued for a repeal of Prohibition in order to save lives. He was right; knowing that if alcohol didn’t once again become legal, more deaths would occur. Many of the people dying were not hard drinkers but casual ones trying to brew up something for a few nips here and there. Crazy times.

I found this a great read and Blum manages to take a subject that could easily get very boring and dry and intersperse it with unbelievable stories that make you wonder if you’ve accidentally picked up a fiction novel. If you’re looking for something different but very informative, pick up The Poisoner’s Handbook. One word of caution though — you don’t want to read it while eating, descriptions of certain poisons and their effects can be rather off-putting.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder in the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

By Deborah Blum

Penguin Books

ISBN: 978-1-59420-243-8

4.25 stars

The Thieves of Manhattan

The Thieves of Manhattan

By Adam Langer

Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperbacks

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6891-3

4 stars

Ian Minot is an author; an author that works in a coffee shop to pay the rent and stares at a blank computer screen on his writing days.  His girlfriend is a gorgeous, Eastern European woman and a much better writer than he is.  He expects her to dump him at any moment.  He wants to write the truth, but unfortunately for him, his life isn’t the stuff great books are made of.  He struggles looking for inspiration becoming bitter with his chosen career wondering if it might be better for him, and any potential readers he might acquire, to quit now.

When a man named Blade publishes a gritty memoir detailing all the crime, prison time, and retched things he’s done in his life, Ian takes offense telling anyone who will listen than the guy is a liar and the whole book is a fraud.  When his girlfriend gets a book deal, life gets even worse for Ian.  That’s when the confident man walks into his life with a proposition that will change his existence — together, the confident man and Ian, will pass off the confident man’s fiction novel as Ian’s memoir and wait for the cash and critical acclaim to roll in.  With nothing to his name and no coffee shop job left, Ian agrees to the scheme and finds out that the truth is not always what one believes.

The Thieves of Manhattan is a wry look at the publishing industry and the problems inherent in the industry, as well as, the silly stereotypical people and behaviors that inhabit it.  I found the first part of the story a bit slow.  Ian is a complainer and not all that easy to like which seems to be the way he likes it, but once the confident man steps into the picture, it picks up and takes an interesting turn.  You see it coming but Langer writes in such a way that makes it fun to read even when see (or think you see) how it will all end.

Langer makes up a lot of terms and uses industry jargon and includes a glossary in the back of the book.  At first I thought it was amusing, but quickly found it annoying and pretentious.  He uses the terms too freely and too often and they lose their entertainment value early on.  At least this was the case for me, could be different for others.

Overall, it’s a great quick read that lambastes the publishing industry for all its problems and all the crap that it publishes.  The main character doesn’t hold himself up as some honest, wonderful writer, and even though he goes along with the scheme he manages to get himself involved in, he doesn’t ever think of himself as better.  Just someone that broke into the system by fraud and found a way out of using the same corrupt system that got him in.  It’s an interesting read.

The Kingdom of Ohio

The Kingdom of Ohio

The Kingdom of Ohio

By Matthew Flaming

Penguin Group

ISBN: 978-0-399-15560-4

4.75 stars

What happens when two people in love are separated? What happens to the love, the heartbreak? Can time and space shift?

Peter Force, newly arrived in New York City in 1900, finds a job working on the subway system at first breaking rock and then repairing the machines that break and move the earth. One cold evening, he meets Cherie-Anne Toledo, and feeling sorry for her, offers her help. Cherie-Anne tells him an amazing tale of time travel and inventors that he can’t believe but he also can’t tear himself away from her or her story.

Cherie-Anne is a mathematical prodigy and a member of the royal family of the Kingdom of Ohio, a place Peter has never heard of. While he is drawn to both Cherie-Anne and her story, he doesn’t find it in himself to believe her until he sees a few things for himself. Although cautious, he finds himself helping her intrigued by what he has seen and heard.

A lot of famous people make appearances in this book — Thomas Edison, JP Morgan, and Nikola Tesla. Numerous footnotes dot the story adding odd notes and sidebars the narrator feels are necessary for the reader to have a complete understanding. These notes make you wonder about the narrator and his actual role in the story he is telling.

The Kingdom of Ohio is a short book and a very rich one. It’s about love, heartbreak, time travel, science and its impact on the world as well as its consequences. It’s all about what we know and what we think we know. How something as simple as the light bulb can have such an effect on our lives and make us wonder where we are going and what the affect might be.

I wasn’t expecting the story I was told in this book but what I did find was lovely. It’s a grand love story, but not overly mushy or drawn out, that crosses time lines — one solidly rooted in the present and one in the past kindled by old photographs and antiques. It will leave you with a lot of questions in the end about what really happened but in a good way. I highly recommend it.