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Ground Up: A Novel Paperback – July 21, 2009

3.3 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

From Idov, a staff writer for New York magazine, comes a sagely wry novel loosely based on his experience running the short-lived Cafe Trotsky on Manhattan's Lower East Side. In the fictionalized version, newlyweds Mark and Nina are living off her trust fund on the Upper West Side. Mark writes the occasional book review and Nina has given up her halfhearted career in entertainment law to pursue photography. After a guest (and, coincidently, Michelin reviewer) compliments their food at a dinner party they're hosting, Nina confides that she has always dreamed of running a cafe, and soon the pair are preparing to open their own hip downtown Viennese paradise. Lacking in experience but full of enthusiasm, the couple battles with landlords, contractors, coffee distributors and temperamental pastry chefs, yet Cafe Kolschitzky bows badly: friends barely show up and a Starbucks knockoff sets up shop across the street. Meanwhile, their funding is cut, no profits have been turned and the naïve couple begins to unravel. Packed with insight and frequent hilarious asides, Idov's debut mercilessly takes down money is an illusion bohoism. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“Charming, manic, and delicious. A caffeinated valentine from a New York already gone, but certainly not forgotten. I drank it right up and felt oddly comforted.” ―Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan

“Every quotable sentence in Michael Idov's brilliantly funny first novel (First novel? How is this possible?) induced in this reader awe and jealousy. Ground Up's narrator is a voice and sensibility I'd follow into any story, any neighborhood. There's talent here of the Nabokovian kind, wresting truth, love, and mordant wit from delightfully misguided dreams. I loved every word.” ―Elinor Lipman, author of Then She Found Me

Ground Up is a rare breed--a sparkling work of light satire written by a ridiculously talented man. The book starts out funny, keeps being funny, then actually gets funnier. There is not a wasted word, not one lame passage. Mr. Idov likes to say that he is not a ‘serious' writer. Meanwhile, his brilliant novel flips the bird to our humorless, insecure literary caste system and reminds us of another author of witty urban stories: the young Anton Chekhov. But, thanks to Idov, my pleasant habit of using a coffeehouse as an office is forever tinged with guilt.” ―Anya Ulinich, author of Petropolis

“A fiercely funny yet frequently touching novel about the nightmare that the American dream can become . . . Idov . . . strikes all the right chords--both cultural and emotional. Narrator Mark Scharf and his wife, Nina Liau, decide to open a hip coffeehouse on Manhattan's Lower East Side, based on their romantic memories of one they had visited in Vienna . . . Everything that can go wrong will, in a manner both hilarious (the coffeehouse) and poignant (the marriage) . . . Though the protagonist's own book reviews are usually caustic, even he would give this debut a rave.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“A sagely wry novel . . . Packed with insight and frequently hilarious asides, Idov's debut mercilessly takes down ‘money is an illusion' bohoism.” ―Publishers Weekly


Product Details

  • Paperback: 290 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Original edition (July 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374531544
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374531546
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,631,197 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in 1976, in Riga, a city Germany and Russia took turns curating for the last 500 years: granite Lenins pointing at gothic spires. My parents encouraged personal responsibility to such an extent that, at the age of thirteen, I transferred myself to another school and informed them of that development only post factum. The Pushkin Lyceum was an experiment in bombarding kids with an almost Victorian curriculum of humanities (Latin, ethics, intro-level psychology and linguistics in 9th grade) just to see what happens. What happened was, first of all, a terrible female-to-male ratio; I represented one-third of the men in my graduating class. In 1990, I started writing for Soviet Youth, a daily newspaper that had just discovered bikini photos and UFO canards, and was enjoying a circulation of over two million as a result. My first publication was an interview with a fashionable writer, who did not expect to be interrogated by a thirteen-year-old and dropped his guard to say some extremely unflattering things about the Communist Party. The interview was immediately picked up by Radio Free Europe, thus making me a full-blown dissident. Luckily, the Soviet Union soon collapsed, no doubt under the weight of that interview; within months, my parents were getting harassed on the street (as Jews, by Russians) and on the job (as Russians, by Latvians). The family, who had previously considered emigration vaguely immoral, alighted for the U.S.

There followed two sad years in Cleveland, spent working at McDonalds and a public library, failing high-school math, and shipping awful essays about all of the above back to the old country. Finally, I took up film studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. My English was not nearly sufficient for prose, so I tried dramaturgy instead. To my surprise, the resulting play about Orson Welles's radio years was actually staged by a local theater, where it ran for the record-busting two weekends. For the rest of my college years, I was a "playwright," a strange ruse on my part (I never had any interest in the form) but a profitable one (it paid for at least a year of tuition).

Within weeks of graduation, I moved to New York City and began an extended spell of job-hopping. From 1998 to 2004, I wrote music listings for the Village Voice, bluffed my way through a very brief career as a restaurant critic at Time Out New York, and anchored a news show at NTV, a Russian television network. In 2005, after a disastrous detour into small business that gave birth to "Ground Up," I happily returned to writing, both fiction and articles for New York Magazine. I also write a good deal of journalism in Russian; a Russian version of Ground Up will be published in the fall of 2009. Finally, I am working on a picture book about unsung icons of Soviet design for Rizzoli. It should be out in early 2011.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book is absolutely, hands down terrible. I got through 1 chapter and I literally threw it against the wall. I am also Russian and EVEN attempted to read this book in Russian, secretly hoping to actually like it as it is the native language of the author... but to no avail. In fact, it was more annoying.

The annoying-ness begins with the introduction itself where the author states that basically, the person reading should know all the intricacies of NYC. When written in English, the book constantly inserts Russian phrases (without translation mind you) obviously assuming the person reading should be of Russian dissent. The book in Russian, dismisses the reader by saying that "unfortunately, the reader, unless very familiar with New York City's lower east side and various other too-cool-for-you places, you are likely to miss the point of the novel." I think I missed the point because I didn't finish the book not because I know NYC better than he assumes. So basically unless you're from NYC and from the neighborhood these people lived in -- don't read it -- you won't get it.

Additionally, the book has a very screwed perception of Russian people living in NYC and more specifically Jewish Russian people. The pretense of the whole thing and how "cool" these people are is beyond disgusting to me and that's partially why I stopped reading so soon. I can't even force myself to finish the book even though I paid more for it than for a Steven King novel. And I am Russian. Russian Jewish.

Sorely disappointed. Don't read it.
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By DP on September 10, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am a food literature fan, but this book left me immensely disappointed. If you want a well-paced read with interesting, less than perfect characters try Bourdin's "Kitchen Confidential." The only reason I finished this book was because I spent my money on it and didn't want to waste it completely. If it was a library book, I probably would have returned it right around 2/3 through the book. In fact, I sold it to Half Priced Books the day I finished it, because it was that annoying.

What I disliked about this book:
-utter pretension at every turn, even in the literary references of the narrator, not just of the pretensions of the characters
-the unnecessary "gotcha" ending wherein the reader learns the entire relationship and previously described impetus of the cafe was actually a lie
-the characters: You will not find one likable character in the bunch; they are all annoying douchebags. I liked Shadow in "American Gods," Odysseus in Homer's "Odyssey"--hell, I even liked Anita Blake right up to around "Cerulean Sins" or "Incubus Dreams." I even sort of like bad guys and unsavory types in other works, but wow, just wow. Idov is successful in creating the most annoying, one-dimensional, self-righteous, entitled spoiled brat protagonists. Even the last few pages don't redeem them and don't reveal any major changes in their personalities. It was very disappointing.

The most shameful thing about this book is that it is being peddled as some great statement about the American Dream. Yet, this book in no way portrays the American Dream, because the protagonists aren't interested in surviving, thriving and growing through hard work, personal sacrifices, and truly working together to achieve financial success and ultimately achieving personal fulfillment.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Michael Idov's protagonist, Mike Scharf, is a neo-yuppie who has a charming way with words as he narrates the inevitable failure of an idealistic coffee-shop venture--the cooking area is so tiny that he dubs it a "kitchennyet." His voice kept me reading despite two grievous mismatches between my tastes and the novel: 1) I do not drink coffee, so most of the bean-centered delirium went right by me. 2) I was not particularly interested in the business or marital troubles of a semi-detached, self-absorbed couple of leisure-class quasi-intellectuals. But hey, with a tale like this, it's the telling, not the plot, that counts, right? I'll happily read Idov's essays, but this novel isn't staying on my tablet.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What happens when you realize that "thing you did after college" has become your career and you want a change? Some move to Vermont and start a making goat cheese. The couple in this book decide to open a coffee shop. But not just any shop. They set out to create the perfect Vienna Cafe serving only the best of everything. With such high ideals what can go wrong? What follows is a well-written and humerous tale filled with characters so beleivable you feel that you might have alrady met them. Read it for the story or read it as an example of great writing.
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Format: Paperback
This is a smart, entertaining, and still serious novel that I feel men might relate to, in particular, re relationships, ambitions and self-identity. (How un-PC of me!)
The author succeeds in offering perspectives that may seem light in some respects, but have more penetrating effects as the story-line unfolds. Give it a shot (perhaps with a decent espresso in hand), and my guess is you'll find yourself in the main character/narrator -- with all his hopes, his fleeting "ups", and his very challenging "downs."
Nicely done, Mr. Idov!
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