Startup by Doree Shafrir

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 25th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company

From veteran online journalist and BuzzFeed writer Doree Shafrir comes a hilarious debut novel that proves there are some dilemmas that no app can solve.

Mack McAllister has a $600 million dollar idea. His mindfulness app, TakeOff, is already the hottest thing in tech and he’s about to launch a new and improved version that promises to bring investors running and may turn his brainchild into a $1 billion dollar business–in startup parlance, an elusive unicorn.

Katya Pasternack is hungry for a scoop that will drive traffic. An ambitious young journalist at a gossipy tech blog, Katya knows that she needs more than another PR friendly puff piece to make her the go-to byline for industry news.

Sabrina Choe Blum just wants to stay afloat. The exhausted mother of two and failed creative writer is trying to escape from her credit card debt and an inattentive husband-who also happens to be Katya’s boss-as she rejoins a work force that has gotten younger, hipper, and much more computer literate since she’s been away.

Before the ink on Mack’s latest round of funding is dry, an errant text message hints that he may be working a bit too closely for comfort with a young social media manager in his office. When Mack’s bad behavior collides with Katya’s search for a salacious post, Sabrina gets caught in the middle as TakeOff goes viral for all the wrong reasons. As the fallout from Mack’s scandal engulfs the lower Manhattan office building where all three work, it’s up to Katya and Sabrina to write the story the men in their lives would prefer remain untold.

An assured, observant debut from the veteran online journalist Doree Shafrir, Startup is a sharp, hugely entertaining story of youth, ambition, love, money and technology’s inability to hack human nature.

Never have I been so disappointed about not being approved for an ARC as I was about not getting approved for this novel; I’d had this novel on my radar for a while. Unfortunately, though, never have I been so disappointed about a read I’d so hyped up in my mind either. It wasn’t exactly a crash and burn, but it definitely fell from a pretty tall height in my mind at nearly whiplash inducing speeds.

Doree Shafrir’s Startup was most definitely the knock-off version of Dave Eggers’ The Circle (the book, not that terrible movie version). The characters were so mono-dimensional that I literally got them confused from time to time. No, literally, thought to myself, “Wait, I thought she was doing something else last chapter. Ooh, no, that was the other chick with a personality as flimsy as a paper doll.” The characters were as shallow as a kiddie pool and had no depth of consequence whatsoever. The men were all fist-pumping-type bros with over-inflated egos and near-megalomaniacal views of themselves. Now, I can’t say that this isn’t how it is in startup culture—I have no idea—but you’d think that writing the characters like that would be, at the very least, playing into every stereotype imaginable, wouldn’t you?

However, Startup did present a really witty look at Millennial culture. Though, as a Millennial myself, I’m not sure that this is such a great read for people who are actually of this generation (is Shafrir even? Doesn’t seem like it), because it tended to come off as a near-parody of our already-outrageous cultural mores. That coupled with the fact that Shafrir kept popping in like an annoying game of peek-a-boo to comment on various aspects of the startup culture gave the novel an odd mashup of: vivid, interesting facts about startup arena MEETS condescendingly parodic interpretation of this generation.

Hmm, left a taste in my mouth that’s pretty similar to unsalted potatoes: I could take it or leave it on my plate; not really adding much to my intellectual meal at all.

The first half of the novel was so description heavy, I’m convinced that word count alone must’ve taken up at least a quarter of the word count. So much time was spent both describing everything—South by Southwest (sigh, multiple times), yuppie office spaces, pretty, rich WASPs flitting around NYC. Shafrir painted their world as though it were a dream—a tech bubble fantasy, if you will. That aspect of the novel admittedly added humor, never taking itself too seriously, and I’m sure that plenty of readers will love that version of comedy. I never said that Startup wasn’t a lively read, full of pop culture references and characters who tried to be quirky—and I won’t take this moment to say that either—but I will note that often they came off as unlikeably entitled and pompous. Eeew.

While the main conflicts surrounding the startups themselves offered some appeal and functioned as the driving point of the novel, the internal, wholly first-world “struggles” of the characters were laughably superficial and mostly trivial (not humorously, mind you, laughably). (view spoiler) Floods and floods of details filled the pages, diluting the actual story line, slowing the plot and washing out the impact that the read could have had. That space on the pages could have been put to better use for sure (view spoiler) Because of this, the tension was lackluster at best most of the time.

All in all, Startup was the chick-lit version of a techy person’s dream read. There was little substance, nothing substantial or memorable about it beyond the occasional head-nod-inducing riff or mildly humorous commentary. I’d recommend it for Tina Fey lovers and tech-minded folks in need of some mental reprieve. It’s a fun, mindless read that won’t change or rock your world but may entertain you for the few hours it takes to get through it. 3 stars ***

Doree  ShafrirDoree Shafrir is a senior culture writer at BuzzFeed News and has written for New York Magazine, Slate, The Awl, Rolling Stone, Wired and other publications. A former resident of Brooklyn, she now lives in Los Angeles with her husband Matt Mira, a comedy writer and podcaster, and their dog Beau.

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Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 302 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by Little, Brown and Company

Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.
This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEASE) remove the images of Liz Taylor in near-drag from your mind as you embark on this one, for this work is a truly stunning portrayal of the woman behind the parable. This biography delves into her marriages, her political decisions, her rise and her downfall. The flap said it all. In fact, it was the dazzling summary in the book flap that drew me in (rather than the razzle dazzle of Schiff’s renowned name on the cover and spine):
“Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons…In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order, a generation before the birth of Christ.”

Honestly, I couldn’t have summed this one up better myself (and whoever wrote that flap summary, in its entirety, should be commended themselves).
This biography, mind you, was released before the (in my opinion) disastrous exposé that Schiff did on The Witches, back when I’d never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winner and my mind was free of all bias for what those pages might hold, for how her style of writing would or would not stimulate and intrigue me. So, I was delighted to find that even the very first line drew me in with a skill rivaling the best in fiction, and her knack for weaving a story out of the hard research and history lost—rather than numbing the reader’s mind with dull and tiresome fact after fact—kept me reading, and hooked.
“Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all.”
Thus go the very first two lines of this biographical tour de force. Schiff weaves the tale in three dimensions. The world—Cleopatra’s world—that she depicts is rich with detail, color, noise. Intrigue, scandal, but, best of all, skillful and methodical stripping away of the myths that surround the legend. Page by page, Schiff untangles the Queen from the lies that have torn her down and muddied her name and her legacy, her intelligence and her political savvy. She dissects the hard decisions made in the name of sovereignty and survival that have painted Cleopatra both the witch and the harlot for centuries, truly, millennia—detailing the actions that made the Queen while giving the reader the perspective of the Queen who made the actions.
No surprise that the same methods used to villainize women both today and historically were used to dismantle the legacy of a great ruler of that era; indeed, the last ruler of that era. But Schiff’s Cleopatra did not cower behind the wall of generations of myth and salaciousness. Everything from her genealogy and skin tone (about as disputed as that of Christ himself’s) to education and precarious upbringing were explored, and Schiff’s work did a masterly job of giving the reader a view of Cleopatra’s life from a thrilling perch, as if right on her shoulder the entire time.
Because of this work, I will most certainly give Schiff’s writing another chance. This page turner (I literally finished half of it in one sitting) made me laugh with the satirical jabs that Schiff managed to aim at the lies surround her muse. It brought me to tears—yes, real ones!—at the climactic conclusion that left a queen and her lover dead and an era at an end. And the clever style of writing itself was witty, intellectual, adroit and entertaining to say the least. My copy was left full of highlighted passages and marginal notes; the best kind of read, if you ask me. Five stars *****

The Witches, Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 417 pages
Published October 27th 2015 by Little, Brown and Company

I’m sorry to say that this one nearly bored me to tears (yes, literal and actual tears), which is a far cry from what I’d expected—and what Miss Schiff’s previous prize-winner, Cleopatra, invoked in me during the reading of it. I was ever so excited to start this one because I’d SO enjoyed Cleopatra—that one had me turning pages faster than any fiction thriller ever has and literally brought me to tears in the end—definitely the kind of roller coaster read that we all yearn for but wouldn’t dream of finding in a biography!

However, I found The Witches to be a muddled let-down from the very first page! A tremendous bore whose tendency towards superfluous purple prose didn’t have nearly the moving effect as it offered before. This one proved to be as laborious a task in reading as it must have been in writing, which is never the effect that an author wishes to achieve, I’d imagine. It skipped around from progressing through the timeline of events in its narration to delving into the most minute details of the backgrounds of even the most minor individuals—an enterprise to be applauded that her research yielded such the treasure trove of information, but a fact that severely slowed the progression of the narrative and made the following of it more difficult than necessary.

I felt like I was constantly juggling the backstory of each minister, shop keeper, servant and—Lord help me, each family line. Now, who refused to bring firewood to the new minister, and who first accused who of witchcraft because what (and whose cousin/sister/brother/niece/neighbor was that again)? That’s what it sounded like in my head with every page I turned! Ordinarily, such a deep understanding of the characters would be enriching to say the least, but this made me feel leaden down and burdened with the reading of the minutiae, like I was trudging through never-ending quicksand! This actually made it hard to get back into the timeline of events because I sometimes couldn’t remember where I’d even left off in the recounting before the meandering path of anecdotes about all of the interweaving families had knocked me off my reading compass. It was a lot like trying to follow a path already overridden with weeds (over-wrought in its attempts at setting the setting) only to be led off the path and back onto it again over and over by trails you thought you were following to stay on course.

Honestly, the reading of this would have been much easier and more enjoyable if Schiff had organized the information differently—shorter chapters would have been an immensely helpful start—so that the reader could more easily remember, categorize and process all of the moving parts of the story in a way that worked more like a novel, as her previous work did. Sure, there was a Shakespearean-like list and description of characters at the start, but even the use of that pulls the reader away from the flow of the work. The Witches would function wonderfully as a reference for an academic paper or the like, but not as a read for any sort of personal enjoyment, whether it had been based on fact or fiction. And this from someone who thoroughly enjoyed one of her other works. After all, as they say, nonfiction writing requires the finesse for story-telling of fiction authoring. Here, the finesse that I previously knew her for was missing. I would give five stars for the sheer amount of information presented here and for just how deeply her research went, but only one star for the way that it read. 1 star *