Tag Archives: Good Reads

Use What You’ve Got & Other Business Lessons I Learned From My Mom by Barbara Corcoran

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Penguin Group, 242 pages.

We all want to believe in a magic trick that will make us successful and wealthy beyond our wildest dreams.

Barbara Corcoran will have us believe the simple childhood lessons she learned from her mother propelled her to real estate stardom in the Big Apple, gave her the confidence to take-on and win a battle with Donald Trump before he became president and ultimately, made her a multi-millionaire.

Whether mom was that instrumental or not, Use What You’ve Got: & Other Business Lessons I Learned from my Mom is a great read.

How Shark Tank angel-investor made her money

Barbara Corcoran is an investor on the ABC TV program Shark Tank and the founder of The Corcoran Group real estate firm in New York. Realtor to the stars (she’s found homes for Brittney Spears among others), the firm generates over 2 $billion in annual revenue.

Ghost written by journalist Bruce Littlefield, the book starts in the early 70s in Edgewater, New Jersey. Corcoran is a 21 year-old diner waitress when her destiny walks through the door. A handsome man plunks himself at her counter. She falls for him, moves to New York, and he loans her $1,000 to start a real estate company.  He subsequently leaves Corcoran and from the ashes of her half of the business, launches The Corcoran Group real estate company, which she sold for $ 70 million in 2001.  Corcoran remains chairman.

The book is written more as a motivational manual than an autobiography, but we learn about her childhood, family, career, and ultimately, what makes her tick;  not money, status, or power; but pride, hard work, and fear of being wrong. Corcoran goes to great lengths to tell us she’s ordinary.  A ‘C’ student who never went beyond high school, Corcoran grew up poor in a Catholic family with 9 other siblings who shared one floor in a house.

How Corcoran beat Donald Trump in the real estate game

Each chapter is titled after the lesson gleaned from mom (there are 24).  Some are mysterious like Chapter twelve’s, When the clubhouse is quiet, they’re probably not making spaghetti. Each chapter begins with a situation Corcoran finds herself in on the road to success and then flashes back to her childhood and a particular lesson learned. Each chapter ends with how she applied that childhood lesson to a very adult situation.

For example, in Mom’s Lesson #22: You’ve got to bully a bully, The Corcoran Group brokered the sale of Donald Trump’s Plaza Hotel for $90 million in 1994. Trump subsequently tried to back out of $2 million in sales commission. Torn between using an in-house attorney or a litigation specialist, Corcoran flashes back to her childhood. A boy is bullying Corcoran’s younger brother, who’s afraid to play outside. Corcoran’s mother gets on the phone and calls the mother of the brawny boy next door and together the two boys confront the neighbourhood bully.

Corcoran writes: “That day, Brendan Higgins whipped Joey Bunt’s butt and Joey never bothered my brother Tommy again.” Corcoran then brings the reader back to the present where she hires the meanest lawyer she can find. Corcoran ends the chapter with, “We were paid our rightful commission because we spent the money to hire the right attorney. Despite my efforts to convince The Donald to settle our differences outside the courtroom, in the end we had to hire a bully beater so the bully didn’t win.”

If you don’t have big breasts, put ribbons on your pigtails

Other words of wisdom range from common sense to cutthroat:  Mom’s Lesson # 11: Go play outside’ (the best business ideas take place outside the office) and Mom’s Lesson # 16: Sweep the corners and the whole house stays clean (clean out the bottom 25 percent of nonproductive employees).

Corcoran has come up with an original hook to distinguish herself from the mounds of motivational books out there. The result is an enjoyable and easy read. The last point is an important one for Corcoran who says she’s dyslexic. This same book has been republished under the attention grabbing title, If you don’t have big breasts, put ribbons on your pigtails.

From someone re-entering the work force after a prolonged absence, to simply being in a rut, this book will make you believe in luck and hard work. As for the spaghetti clubhouse lesson, you’ll have to read the book to understand.

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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Three-hundred-and-thirty-seven pages. Published by Simon and Schuster in North America.

By the end of the read, I wanted to name the book, A Man Called Love instead of Ove. Because, love and acceptance, although rather begrudgingly, is what this book is all about.

amancalledove_pb_900Backman takes a classic, cranky-next-door-neighbour tale and spins it into a humorous story of acceptance, burying the hatchet and finding new friendships in unlikely places.

I simply couldn’t put it down. If you enjoyed another Swedish book, The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, you will positively relish this novel. The convoluted writing style of Ove is peculiar yet easy to read. In his end notes, Backman thanks his editor for making numerous grammatical corrections and suggestions, and for letting Backman ignore them all.

Ove is the curmudgeon next-door, old beyond his years. Life has not been kind to him and he’s bitter because of the hand he’s been dealt. Ove unexpectedly meets the young new neighbours in his townhouse complex when one of them runs over his mailbox while backing-up a U-Haul. Not the best start to a new friendship but it’s the beginning of the blossoming of Ove.

I chose the word blossoming because Ove keeps a sharp eye on the complex for non-approved greenery and flowers residents might plant. But sometimes flowers show up in unexpected places. For Ove, there are rules and they must be obeyed. Playing by the rules is the only thing Ove knows how to do but his neighbours and their trials and exploits force Ove to look beyond the black and white that has been his life.

I won’t spoil the novel with a synopsis of events but they are at times surprising, expected and always serve as an explanation of how Ove got to be the way he is.

A Man Called Ove is a quick and easy read that will lift your spirits and help you see the best in everyone.

The Girls by Emma Cline

Published by Random house. Three-hundred and fifty-five pages.

 

botmjuly1606-720x793More than not bad for a debut novel. This New York Times best seller, alluring and electrifying, will send you rushing to Google to check out the facts behind the real Manson Murders.

The novel is roughly based on the Manson murders in L.A. in the late 60s. Pregnant American actress Sharon Tate was among those murdered by the disciples of a strange sect led by Charles Manson. In The Girls, the female followers of counter-culture commune leader Russell, murder an actress and her young son along with two others, at their home. It’s an attempt to get back at a famous singer. Most of these facts are revealed in the opening pages.

The lead-up to the event consumes the rest of the book. It’s a slow simmering pot of ideals and desires gone wrong. Cline’s writing is not always clear and I found myself re-reading several paragraphs to understand her meaning.

The protagonist is 12-year old Evie Boyd who’s under-supervised by her self-absorbed parents during a long summer. Languishing in boredom in the oppressive California heat, Evie, at odds with her only friend Connie, meets cult-follower Suzanne at a park. Evie imagines Suzanne, older and attractive, to be the embodiment of carefree and spirited youth that Evie so desperately craves to be.

The attraction is immediate and with nothing else to do, Evie seeks out Suzanne and boards a bus that will forever change her life.

The Girls does a decent job of laying out the circumstances in which an intelligent but lonely girl can get wrapped up into exploitation, while willfully neglecting the writing on the wall. Evie has plenty of opportunities to get out but the lure of what she considers acceptance and the attention of a charismatic older man, lead Evie down the proverbial garden path. Only, Evie’s is sprinkled with thorns and pestilence.

Get your teenage daughters to read The Girls. The perils of joining a gang are laid before them and the attraction of unrestricted freedom and charming older men slowly crumble.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Four-hundred-and-seventy-three pages, Europa Editions.

story-of-the-lost-child-cover-241The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan chronicles recounting the story of Elena and Lina. Reading the book is like cliff-diving off a high cliff and crashing on the rocks below. It’s a sad ending to a glorious story.

I’m not going to spoil the book for you, but the two protagonists become pregnant and raise their children in the old neighbourhood. One of the two protagonists literally loses her child and begins a slow decent into instability if not madness. A lot of ink is taken up summing up of all the characters and where they’re at in their lives when the book ends in 2006. Lina and Elena are in their 60s, as are the majority of the cast of characters who make up the novel.

Elena is a success but she’s crushed by depression, never becoming the confidant person she could have been. She feels that her career has been marred by that. Elena is a success but she’s consumed by self doubt. Lina too, becomes a success but eventually implodes. Lina disappears, we know that in the first pages of the first novel. Here, we get an inkling as to why; she may have been murdered or simply decided to vanish of her own free will. Not knowing why she’s gone missing is an unsatisfying aspect of the novel.

The series has been a stellar trip about the lives of two remarkable women and the people in their lives. However, the ending is a sad ending to an otherwise at times shocking and always eventful series. I expect characters in their 60s to have misgivings, joys and regrets but Elena and especially Lina, loomed larger than life and their senior years are just plain dull.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein.

Four-hundred and eighteen pages. Europa Editions.

9781609452339Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay reads like a soap opera. You know the entire cast of characters; new and fleeting ones are introduced and they get themselves into dangerous, sad and fascinating situations. You know they’ll get out of the mess they’re in but you don’t know how, so you keep reading.

The third in the four-book Neapolitan series is definitely not pulp fiction, yet it contains lurid and sensational subject matter and its narrative is operatic in scope. The main characters Lina and Elena alone would be comfortable in a Jackie Collins novel; not to mention the characters that surround them. In fact, that may be the broad appeal of the series.

The characters are so richly described and the writing so evocative, that the book is more than typical chick lit about women’s relationships. Ferrante’s talented writing elevates Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay from a light fluffy read at the cottage to literary prose.

The third book becomes more about Elena and how she asserts herself as a person and as a writer, while Lila spins down into a horrible abyss before climbing back up. Characters from the previous two books come together. There’s a reversal of fortune.  At this point, I could give you a synopsis of the novel but I won’t. I didn’t have a clue as to what would happen on these pages and I want to give you the same pleasure.

However, I will tell you that what Lila and Elena go through is almost symbolic of the cultural and social changes that take place in Italy during the late 1960s and 70s, the period the book is set in.

It’s a great read but a thick read at 418 pages. Enjoy.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Europa Editions, four hundred and seventy one pages (translated by Ann Goldstein).

51w00tgvxtl-_sx320_bo1204203200_The Story of a New Name is so addictive; you can’t put it down. This is the second installment in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan chronicles. It’s so much better than the first, My Brilliant Friend. The novel starts where the first one ends – at Lina’s wedding, when she discovers her new husband has already betrayed her.

The soap opera list of characters already established, Ferrante is able to dive into the action in a way the first novel lacks. There’s much less set-up and character back-stories. Ferrante gets right to it and so much actually happens to her beloved duo of Lina and Elena. Lina’s honeymoon is a horror and her newly-wed life never really amounts to more than that. Elena finds success and a somewhat dubious mate.

A good chunk of the novel takes place at the beach where Lina and Elena spend the summer in the hopes of Lina becoming pregnant during one of Stefano’s visits. Plenty of actual sex and thinking about sex takes place at the beach. Lina takes a lover and in a fit of jealousy, Elena decides she’s done with being a virgin and does something drastic and terrible. Elena seems to be suffocating in Lina’s shadow. She believes Lina is sophisticated and intelligent but the ignorance and naiveté of both girls is at times frightening.

Since Elena is narrating the story, and she is infatuated, if not actually in love with Lina, much of the grandiose story-telling is centered around Lina while Elena’s tale is more sombre. This is clearly how Elena sees her own life. She says she’s happy but Elena is unable to tear herself away from Lina, even when Lina appears to implode. Lina is the proverbial traffic accident and Elena is the rubber-necker who can’t move along and eventually gets involved in the accident.

That makes me a voyeur and a speed-reader.

The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka

Two-hundred eighty-eight pages. Published by McClelland & Stewart.

pianomakerimageThe bot-boiler that almost was. That’s the best way to sum up this sixth novel by Canadian author Kurt Palka. The last third of the book makes slogging through the first two-thirds worthwhile. If the author wrote the rest of the novel in such vivid colour as he did the courtroom drama and Canadian North flashbacks, this would be a potboiler, but it isn’t.

All the ingredients are there; World War 1, forbidden love, love lost, unrequited love, exotic travels and dangerous business liaisons. Instead, we’re treated to the plain tale of a middle-age French-born piano maker, Hélène Giroux. Her youth is marred by the war, as she learns to manage the family’s piano business. An encounter with an American scoundrel/businessman Nathan Homewood at first appears to salvage what’s left of the ruined business but the ultimate price Hélène pays is far greater than either of them could have imagined.

The book opens in the 1930s when Hélène arrives in a fictional Nova Scotia town to apply for the position of a church pianist. Through flashbacks and veiled references, we learn that Hélène is evading a secret past that involves, a death, a mental institution, a deformed foot and an illicit trade. All this should make for an enticing narrative but Palka’s rendering is muted and even dull.

Hélène’s past catches up with her when an RCMP officer informs Hélène she’s being arrested for the death of her former business partner. She was cleared of any wrong doing in a previous trial but new information comes to light.

Palka cranks it up a notch in the court room scenes with the thrilling telling of the events that led to her business partner’s death. Almost suddenly, we learn the strength, courage and resourcefulness Hélène hides from view. I couldn’t put the book down at this point.

If you rip through novels in days, then add this to your list. If you only manage to find the time to read the occasional novel, wait for something more captivating.