Category Archives: New York City

The Mad Girls of New York by Maya Rodale

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God save Nellie from the ladies’ pages. If a woman was lucky enough to get a job working for a paper—which spared her from working in a factory, or as a domestic or a wife (shudder)—she would have to spend her days writing about household hints and recipes, garden shows and charity luncheons. It was mind-numbingly tedious and she wanted to avoid it at all costs. It was one reason why she had left Pittsburgh.

There is nothing worse than being told that you don’t know your own mind or body. If you aren’t mad when you go in, chances are you will be by the time you come out.

When twenty-three-year-old Nellie Bly headed to New York City in 1887, she left a message for her boss at The Pittsburgh Gazette.

I’m off for New York. Look out for me.
—Nellie Bly

Good advice. It was no easy task for Elizabeth (Elly) Jane Cochrane. Women in journalism were relegated to the “ladies’ page” when they were hired at all. And often had to use pen names to get their work into print. Persistence paid off, though, and Cochrane finally got a gig with The New York World, by promising to go undercover at the New York City Asylum for the Insane on Blackwell’s Island. (called Roosevelt Island today). The notorious institution had already been the subject of multiple journalistic examinations. But it was a tough place to get into, and, as it had changed from a co-ed institution to a women’s asylum in 1872, it would take a female to be able to get inside, one of the downsides to journalism being such a boys’ club. But Nellie’s self-confidence, and courage, knew no bounds, so she dove right in.

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Maya Rodale – image from Open Shelf – photo by Elsa Ngan

The Mad Girls of New York is a novelization of Bly’s actual early adventures in NYC. Some of the characters are taken from Bly’s seminal work, Ten Days in an Asylum, which was comprised of and expanded from the articles she had written for the New York World, a series that made her reputation. She persuaded those who needed persuading that she was mad, in order to be institutionalized as a patient. It was surprisingly easy. Once in, she experienced the horrors inflicted on the patients, although inmates would have been more accurate.

The asylum was a physically cold place, and the residents were provided with painfully inadequate clothing and covers. The food was unspeakable, often insect-ridden, the physical accommodations spartan, the doctors dismissive, the nurses abusive, and the cleanliness regimen was cruel. It did not help that some of the help was recruited from the prison that was also on the island.

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Nellie Bly – image from the Irish Times

We meet several groups of characters. The journalism pack leads off. This includes the editors she interviews during a project on why the papers do not hire women. There is a fair bit of LOL to be had in this as she leaves them spinning and sputtering in their own contradictions. There are the other women journalists with whom she engages, a club of sorts, who help each other out, getting together in an establishment, The Ordinary, that serves women only. Such institutions did exist at the time. She has a competition going with a male reporter, Sam Colton, from Chicago. There is also a simmering attraction between the two, but it is not romancy enough to intrude into the story too much, thankfully. There is also a flirtation with the hunky, single mayor.

When you learn that there was in fact a hot bachelor mayor of New York City named Hugh Grant, you must include it in your novel. – from Rodale’s Twitter feed

Rodale has produced numerous romance novels, (22 by my count, plus some novellas, a children‘s book and a couple of non-fics) so it would have been a shock if there were not some sparks flying in this tale. But if you are hoping for ignition into conflagration, you will have to check out her considerable romance work instead.

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The New York City Asylum for the Insane – image from Wikipedia – cheery-looking, no?

Then there are the patients. Anne is in need of care, but cannot afford decent treatment at a private institution. The Princess has a regal bearing but will only say three words, Rose, Daisy, and Violet, over and over. Tillie has a nervous condition, truly needs some rest, some peace and quiet, in a warm place, but her friends dumped her off at Bellevue (with friends like that…). Prayer Girl, who pleads with god to kill her ASAP, somehow never takes the initiative herself. Women are committed to this place for a variety of reasons, few of them good. Many devolve to a broad category of their being inconvenient, something Martha Mitchell might recognize. Then there is Mrs Grady, the Nurse Ratched of this enterprise, a cruel overseer, super control freak, eager to inflict pain and punishment and never willing to hear any of the real concerns of her charges. Toss in a few cruel cops and attendants, a clueless doctor, and another who at least shows some bits of humanity.

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Newspaper Row in Lower Manhattan. That is City Hall in the foreground on the left. The domed building to the east of City Hall is the New York World Building. The Brooklyn Bridge had not yet been built when this shot was taken, but if it had, it would appear to the north (left) of the World Bldg) – image from Stuff Nobody Cares About

Rodale’s focus is on how women were treated, not just in this horrid institution, but in all institutions of the wider world, using her story-telling skills to show us how women were regarded as a lesser life form, in politics, in journalism, in finance, in the overall world of work, well…paid work. Slaving at home for hubby and progeny was still just fine and dandy. She shows the struggles that smart, driven women had to endure in order to access the same level of opportunity and respect as men, just to be able to cover hard news. Bly was one of a group of women called “Girl Stunt Reporters,” daring women journalists who put themselves in peril in order to delve into many of the social wrongs of the late 19th century.

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Hugh J. Grant two-term NYC Mayor – image from Wikipedia

Rodale spices up the story, as if it needed additional condiments, with a mystery about a high-society spouse gone strangely missing, with the widower chomping at the bit to wed a younger, richer, woman. She incorporates actual historical events and people into the tale, sometimes with name changes, sometimes with tweaking of timelines. Some personages retain their names, including the aforementioned mayor, Hugh Grant, (who did not actually become mayor until 1889, two years after the events of this novel) Hetty Green (The Witch of Wall Street), Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a writer of articles about beauty and health for the New York World, and others.

Despite the harshness of the conditions Bly, and now Rodale, reveal, there is no graphic violence or sexual behavior in The Mad Girls of New York. This helps make it perfectly suitable for younger readers, particularly girls, who may not know about Nellie, and what a pioneer she was. It is a very fluid, quick read.

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Hetty Green – The Witch of Wall Street – image from wiki

The book is listed as A Nellie Bly Novel #1, so we can presume there are more in the works. I do not have any inside intel on this, but I imagine that Nellie’s around-the-world-in-80-days challenge (she did it in 72) will be among the upcomings. Something to look forward to.

Nellie’s story is a remarkable one. Rodale has done a very nice job of letting modern readers in on what Nellie faced as a gutsy, newbie reporter in New York, and what she accomplished, at least in the short term, encouraging us to learn more about this brilliant, dogged, remarkable woman. You’d have to be crazy to pass this one by.

The madhouse had been horrible, but this part—writing it all down with the promise of seeing the atrocities in print, made it feel worthwhile. When she thought of the public reading her words and knowing about the suffering that happened at Blackwell’s, Nellie felt shivers. Do stunts, Marian had flippantly suggested. But Nellie had found her life’s work.

Review posted – May 6, 2022

Publication date – April 26, 2022

I received an ARE of The Mad Girls of New York from Berkley in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating. Can I get a warmer blanket, please?

This review has been cross-posted Goodreads.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interview
—–Wine, Women and Words – Nerding out about Nellie with Maya Rodale with Michelle Leivas and Diana Giovinazzo

Item of Interest from the author
—–Lithub – The Real-Life Heroines of an Outrageous Era: A Gilded Age Reading List

My obsession with the Gilded Age began with romance novels—I wanted to set a series in old New York in the world of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom and dollar Princesses, which felt like an updated version of the Regency Era. But in researching the time period I discovered that the best stories weren’t just uptown in Fifth Avenue mansions—they were everywhere. I also discovered that the Gilded Age was a golden age for independent, ambitious, boundary breaking real life heroines.
One of my favorites is Nellie Bly…She was the first and most daring of the stunt girl reporters, who found fame and success by going undercover to report stories that detailed women’s experiences as factory girls, or getting abortions, or learning ballet.

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Nellie Bly
—–Wiki on Hugh J. Grant – NYC’s 88th mayor
—–Wiki on Hetty Green – “The Witch of Wall Street” – Marian goes to see her to get intel on Jay Wallace in chapter 24
—–Wiki on – Harriet Ayer – Nellie’s mentor in the book
—–Library of Congress – Research Guide for Nellie Bly
—–Gutenberg – Ten Days in a Madhouse – the full text
—–Wiki on The Martha Mitchell effect
—–Smithsonian – These Women Reporters Went Undercover to Get the Most Important Scoops of Their Day – an outstanding piece by Kim Todd, author of Sensational: The Hidden History of America’s “Girl Stunt Reporters
—–Wiki on The Ladies Ordinary – a women-only establishment where Nellie meets with other reporters
—–For a real blow to your consciousness, check out this site, for Octagon NYC. This part of the original asylum has been converted, as all things in NYC are, into luxury housing. The prices are insane. (a 540 sq ft studio is $3,028 a month, a 3 BR, 1,316 sq ft goes for $7500 a month)
—–The American Journal of Psychiatry has a brief, but informative, piece – The Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island and the New York Press

Reminds Me Of
—–Leslie Parry’s 2015 novel, Church of Marvels, includes a look at Blackwell’s when one of the characters spends some time inside.
—–One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – the film

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Filed under Feminism, Fiction, Historical Fiction, New York City

The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker

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If you have not yet read The Golem and the Jinni, stop! Right now! Go back. Read that, then we can talk about the sequel. Read it already? Great. Not yet? Ok, I’ll wait, but not for a thousand years, like some.

You’re back? Cool. Great book, right? So Chava, the golem of book #1 and Ahmad, the jinni of that tale, are a bit older, and a bit wiser. They are also a bit more rounded as characters. We’ll get to them in a bit.

The story begins with an extremely devout rabbi, Lev Altschul (very old school) on the Lower East Side (not the guy from the earlier book) He has come across some ancient texts, books with arcane knowledge. He is not the greatest parent in the world, a widower, much more devoted to his studies than his daughter, Kreindel. She is taken care of by, essentially, a committee of congregation members. But she loves her pop and wants to learn, wants to study. Of course, girls were not welcome to imbibe the texts that Jewish boys were encouraged to learn. She spies on lessons and picks up what she can. As it happens there is a pogrom underway in one of the usual places in Eastern Europe. The rabbi, with the help of those old books, can now do something about it. He determines to send to a rabbi in Lithuania a weapon that can be used to defend oppressed Jews there. He works day and night to construct a golem for them. It does seem that Wecker’s golems always run into transit issues. Instead of heading across the Atlantic, as planned, this one, Yossele, remains in New York, due to an untimely building fire. He awaits only wakening.

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Helene Wecker – image from Fantasy Book Cafe

Speaking of golems, Chava is trying her best to be as human as possible, given her natural limitations.

Q: When you thought about writing a golem character, did you think about other legends and myths about people being created out of inanimate matter? Adam from earth? The famous Golem of Prague, the greek myth of Prometheus, or Pygmalion? Frankenstein’s monster? Or even the idea of creating a modern robot? Did you want to write from those traditions or come up with something completely different?


A: I certainly wrote the Golem’s character with those legends and stories in mind. In fact, in early drafts she was much closer to something like the Golem of Prague. She had less emotion, and less insight into the emotions of others. But it became clear that that wouldn’t do for a main character. So I made her more empathic, more “human” in that sense, and I think that brought her closer to the androids and cyborgs of modern science fiction, like the replicants of Blade Runner and Star Trek’s Lt. Commander Data. But I think all these stories have the same sources at heart, and the same central question, of what happens when we create life that approaches human but isn’t quite. – from LitLovers interview re Book One

Despite being a magical clay being conjured by a spell, Chava still feels the compulsion to help others. And being telepathic allows her to have a pretty good idea of what folks feel, and need. Shutting out the onslaught of telepathic noise remains a challenge, but a much reduced one, as she has learned how to block a lot of it out, and she tries to stay away from overcrowded places. Concerned about people noticing her agelessness, after so long a time at the bakery, where she has been working since she arrived, Chava decides it is wise to move on. After completing a course of study at Teacher’s College, she finds an excellent gig at a Jewish orphanage in Manhattan, teaching cooking.

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Lt Commander Data of Star Trek NG – image from Wikipedia

Speaking of hot things, in Book One, Ahmad was mostly an elemental character, all fire and immediate gratification. Book Two shows a bad boy who can still bring the heat, but who has gained considerably more awareness, of himself, and of the world around him. He has grown a sense of decency, personal responsibility, and a need for purpose. He remains in business with Arbeely, the man who had released him from his thousand-year imprisonment in a flask. He molds iron with his bare hands. Business is good, booming even, so they expand to grander quarters, where Ahmad’s smoldering creative ambitions ignite to full blast.

Sleepless in Manhattan, Chava and Ahmad walk the streets and rooftops in the wee hours. They are best friends, committed to exclusivity with each other re the benefits of their connection. The young man enamored of Chava in Book One, her husband, is no more, killed off in that earlier tale. She is rightfully concerned about the downsides of having a husband or bf made of flesh and blood, and who might not live, ya know, forever, not to mention the risk of him discovering what she really is. Ahmad has sworn off humans, after the damage he did to Sophia Winston in the first book.

And, speaking of damaged heiresses, Sophia has been promoted to a top-tier character. She struggles to cope with the affliction that resulted from her getting jiggi with a jinni. I guess you could call it an STD, but not the usual sort. (Even had penicillin been invented, it would not have done the trick.) She cannot get warm. Sophia is convinced that only place where there is any hope of succor is the Middle East. She travels to many ancient sites, in a constant search for local experts in pharmacology able to concoct potions that alleviate her perpetual chill. (I suppose one might see in Sophia’s inability to douse her inner flames a symbol of her carrying the torch for someone. I wouldn’t. But some might.)

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Cleopatra’s Needle, was transported from Egypt and installed in Central Park in 1881 – image from Wikipedia

In case there were not enough magical beings wandering about, Wecker balances the scales, tipped by the weighty presence of Yossele, by adding one more. As it happens, Sophia encounters in her travels yet another fire being, a jinniyeh, Dima. It appears that the iron-bound jinni (Ahmad) is a character of legend in the jinni world. This female jinni has something special about her too, (I mean, aside from being a jinni, and going about her business unimpeded by attire) and is hoping to meet up with the only other jinni she has heard of who is also an outsider in their particular circle. She stands in contrast to Ahmad, presenting as the self-centered ball of fire he used to be.

Everybody wants something. Chava wants to be human; Ahmad wants a purpose; Sophia wants a cure; the jinniyeh wants a compatriot, maybe a partner. And in case that is not enough, Yossele wants to protect his master. Kreindel wants to study Hebrew and learn all that her father had learned. More? Remember Anna, a former workmate of Chava’s at the bakery? Chava had seriously put an end to Anna’s husband whaling on her, and subsequently helped Anna and her son, Toby. Anna is terrified of Chava and wants her to stay away. In this book, Toby is a fifteen-year-old Western Union messenger, who wants to know who his father is, and who that creep in his recurring dreams might be, and what the deal is with Chava and that Arab guy.

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Replicants from Blade Runner – image from NME

Wecker has seriously kicked up her game for this novel. There was plenty going in in the first book in terms of discussions about serious questions of religion and morality. That is no less the case in this one, with the exception that these characters are better drawn, more complex, and more interesting. They struggle with ethical dilemmas, and are challenged to make difficult decisions. There are some lovely interactions among them that will make you smile, maybe even recognize similar tete-a-tetes from your own experience.

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Pennsylvania Station – image from Traditional Building

This is not a ha ha funny book, but there are some elements of humor here and there. In a way it is a running joke that Ahmad, while working on a large construction, has continual problems keep the over-sized glass panels he has designed from smashing. Given that the primary ingredient in glass is sand, it seems fair to ask if Ahmad might be trying to build a literal sand-castle.

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Washington Square Park – circa 1907 – image from NY Public Library

Speaking of palaces, not all are hidden. The newly opened Pennsylvania Station, a glorious structure, is seen as a kind of palatial caravansery, a roadside inn for travelers from all over, where information was exchanged and commerce was conducted. It is a favorite spot for Ahmad on his urban peregrinations. He does not tell Chava about it, however, which makes Penn Station a bit of a hidden palace for him. Enough, certainly to merit being shown on the cover of the book. The ancient city of Palmyra, which we visit in Sophia’s wanderings, had once been a center of trade, and had a caravansary, but was mostly a ruin at the time of her visit. Palatial buildings are not the only old-world structures that echo in early 20th century Manhattan. The famous arch in Washington Square Park, erected in 1895, which was featured on the cover of The Golem and the Jinni, is reminiscent of the famous arch of Palmyra. The Greenwich Village arch is encountered again in Book Two. Cleopatra’s Needle, a two-hundred-ton obelisk, originally built in Egypt in the 15th century, was transported to Central Park in 1881. Sophia’s father visits it often.

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The arch in Palmyra – image from Wikipedia

There are many historical touchstones, as the book begins in 1900 and ends with the approach of World War I. Wecker notes the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, the 911 of its time, with mass casualties, and people jumping from the top three floors of the ten-story Asch building to keep from being burned alive. We hear news of the start of World War I in Europe, come across the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and see the Arab community in lower Manhattan’s Little Syria neighborhood beginning its move to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

We also see some of the anachronistic social and legal norms of the time. Kreindel is not allowed to study what Yeshiva boys can. Chava is not allowed to own property. Women walking alone at night are considered suspect. So the women in Wecker’s stories have to be extra strong.

I don’t think I set out to deliberately showcase strong women, but I did consciously work to give every female character her due. I was very aware that I couldn’t be lazy about the women in my book, that the Victorian setting and the “fairytale” aspects might pull me toward more stereotypically weak or flat female characters if I wasn’t careful. At the same time, I couldn’t be anachronistic; I had to be true to the constraints that women lived with in that era. In the end, I became very interested in how they lived with those constraints, how they either chafed against them or found a (perhaps uneasy) peace and a certain amount of self-expression despite them. – from the Fantasy Literature interview in 2013

Secrecy is a theme that permeates. Chava thinks Ahmad would prefer having a jinniyeh to her, but cannot bring herself to ask him. He is hiding from her what he has learned about a huge sacrifice Arbeely had made for him. Kreindel lies about her age, and is hiding the fact that there is a golem under her control in Manhattan. (For my money, Kreindel is the most intriguing character in the novel, a child with limited tools forced to cope with life and death decisions, in an often hostile environment. She generates both admiration for her tough-as-nails exterior and empathy for her suffering.) Sophia is hiding her need for a special potion. Dima hides from her kind what her special characteristic is. In addition to hiding from humans what she actually is, Chava keeps Riverside Park and the streets she walks by day secret from Ahmad, as he keeps Penn Station secret from her. Ahmad is working on a huge project in his building that he will not let anyone see. I suppose one might see each of these characters as their own walking, talking hidden palaces.

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The Williamsburg Bridge under construction circa 1900-1906 – image from the Library of Congress via Untappedcities.com

The whole Golem/Jinni duology (so far) might have gone in a very different direction. Wecker talks about how it all got started in a lovely interview with the blogger Lady Grey, who has, in fact, been a friend of Wecker’s since childhood. It was during her MFA program that Wecker ran into a problem. She had wanted to write a book of linked stories, family tales of cultural background and immigration. Wecker is Jewish and her husband is Arab-American. She was impressed by how similar their family stories were, and wanted to highlight that.

You don’t pay all that money for them to be nice to you. They’re gonna tell you what they think. I was having this conversation with a friend of mine, Amanda, who was in my workshop with me. She gave me probably the best tough love conversation I’ve had in my life. She said, “Helene, can I ask you a question? Why are you writing like this?” I said “What do you mean, writing like what?” She said, “Ok, you’re doing these very Raymond Carver, very realist short stories. Very MFA model. But that’s not who you are. I’ve been to your apartment. I’ve seen your bookshelves. I know what a nerd you are. And you are always talking in class about injecting the genre into literature, and busting down the barriers and bringing magic into stories and that’s what you groove on. So why are you not doing that?” I honestly had never thought of that. She had taken my head and whipped it around to where I needed to be looking at. You know I’m still like “But that’s not…these stories…don’t…with the,…that, no.“ She said “ok, look. The next thing I see from you in the workshop, I want it to be about your family, but I want it to be magical.” I was like, “Ok…well that’s my marching orders. I’m going to do what she said. I went home and sat and thought about it. It was, literally, two hours later I had the rough outline for what would be The Golem and the Jinni.” – from the Lady Grey interview

It has been eight years since The Golem and the Jinni was published. Why did it take so long to wrote Volume Two? When her first novel was published, Wecker had a one-year-old. That child is now nine and a second has joined the family. Go ahead, try writing a novel with a baby, then giving birth to another, then having small children to take care of, even if you are sharing the duties with your mate. Piece of cake, right? Her editor was pretty understanding, at one point even telling her that if she was not ok with what she had written so far, to take another YEAR! So, supportive beyond belief.

I was lucky, and The Golem and the Jinni was successful enough that, before long, I could start thinking seriously about selling my next book. Readers seemed interested in a sequel; my publisher, too, liked the concept. I had a few vague ideas for other, non-Golem-and-Jinni books, but none of them were clamoring to be told. I was now mother to a two-year-old, with a baby on the way. I was turning forty, and I was tired. The first book had taken me seven years to write. I really, really didn’t want to do that again. Write a sequel, said my weary brain. It’s got to be easier than starting over from the beginning. – from the Fantasy Café interview

I guess that may have provided the needed direction, but her real -world constraints remained, and the work took much longer than hoped. I have seen no affirmation that a third Golem/Jinni book is planned. A third book is expected from Wecker, but there is no certainty that it will be another Golem/Jinni novel. In the interview with Lady Grey, Wecker talks about having a slew of material that was cut from this book. It sounded to me like she was contemplating a volume of stories that could accompany her two novels. But the ending of this one presents several hooks that could be developed into a third novel. I know which direction I hope she takes.

My gripes are minimal. While there is some humor in the book, it could have done with a bit more. The larger concern is that, even with some elements resolved, there are some in need of further exploration, and, in the absence of a third novel in the series, the ending leaves one hanging. While I would place a cautious wager on the series being made into a true trilogy, it is far from a certainty that this will happen, so far as I know.

Her lead characters are complex, and sustain our interest; their wants and challenges are clear; the secondary characters work well to support the narrative stream; Wecker offers an insightful portrait of a place and time; the action keeps us flipping the pages, eager to see what happens next; there are intelligent and emotional discussions about real-world concerns and moral issues; and there are sane outcomes offered to the challenges the characters experience. Ultimately, as will become clear when you read this book, it was worth the extra time it took for The Hidden Palace to find the light of day. It is as intelligent, engaging, and delightful a read as you could possibly wish for. Helene Wecker is a gifted weaver of tales, a fabulous, magical story-teller, and she is only getting better.

Review posted – May 28, 2021

Publication date – June 8, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, GR, Instagram, and FB pages

—–Library Love Fest – An Interview with Helene Wecker, Author of THE HIDDEN PALACE – with Chris Connolly – audio – 36:21
—–Fantasy Literature – Marion chats with Helene Wecker by Marion Deeds – this one is from 2013, and deals directly with the first Golem/Jinni book, but the content of the interview is still very informative for readers of the current book
—–LitLovers – An Interview with Helene Wecker
—–Discovering Magic with Helene Wecker – audio – 42:19 – with Lady Grey – they were friends since grade school – Trek nerds

Items of Interest from the author
—–Fantasy Café – Women in SF&F Month: Helene Wecker – on her challenges in writing The Hidden Palace
—–Jewish Book Council – Excerpt

Items of Interest
—–Odessa pogrom of 1905
—–Wiki on Palmyra
—–The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire
—–The Hotel Earle
—–Penn Station

My review of The Golem and the Jinni

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

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…now I knew there were so many ways to get hung from a cross—a mother’s love for you morphing into something incomprehensible. A dress ghosted in another generation’s dreams. A history of fire and ash and loss. Legacy.

Melody is sixteen, having her coming out party in her home, her grandparents home, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. We are introduced to her father, her grandparents, her bff, her world. She has chosen for her entrance music something that draws a line between her generation and those that came before, Prince’s Darling Nikki. The guests are thankful that the lyrics have been omitted. [you can see them at the end of EXTRA STUFF]. But it is the connections across generational lines that are at the core of Jacqueline Woodson’s latest novel. How the past persists through time, molding, if not totally defining us, informing our options, our choices, our possibilities, the impact of legacy.

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Jacqueline Woodson – image from the New York Times

Red at the Bone is a short book with a long view. (I have had people say, “I’ve read that in a day” and I’m like, “Yo, it took me four years to write that. Go back and read it again.” – from the Shondaland interview) It is not just about race and legacy, but about class, about parenting, about coming of age, about the making and unmaking of families.

Look closely. It’s the spring of 2001 and I am finally sixteen. How many hundreds of ancestors knew a moment like this? Before the narrative of their lives changed once again forever, there was Bach and Ellington, Monk and Ma Rainey, Hooker and Holiday. Before the world as they knew it ended, they stepped out in heels with straightening-comb burns on their ears, gartered stockings, and lipstick for the first time.

Iris found motherhood too soon, was fifteen when she became pregnant with Melody. Buh-bye Catholic school. Buh-bye coming out party. And when her parents were unwilling to endure their neighbors’ scorn, buh-bye neighborhood. It’s tough to be a proper, upstanding family, respected by all, when the sin is so public, and the forgiveness element of their Catholic community is so overwhelmed by the urge to finger-point and shame.

Class informs who we choose and the roads we take through our lives. Although paths may cross, as we head in diverging directions we can wave to each other for a while, but eventually, mostly, we lose sight of those who have traveled too far on that other bye-way. The baby-daddy, Aubrey, steps up, but, really, Iris does not think he is a long-term commitment she wants to make. She has been raised middle-class, and Aubrey’s background, ambitions, and interests do not measure up.

When she looked into her future, she saw college and some fancy job somewhere where she dressed cute and drank good wine at a restaurant after work. There were always candles in her future—candlelit tables and bathtubs and bedrooms. She didn’t see Aubrey there.

Her decision impacts her daughter, who grows up largely motherless, a mirror to her father, who had grown up fatherless, although without the resources his daughter has from her mother’s parents.

One impact of history is how the Tulsa Massacre, specifically, cascades down through the generations, driving family members to achieve, and to zealously protect what they have gained, ever knowledgeable that everything might be taken from them at any time. (Melody is named for her great-grandmother, who suffered in the Tulsa Massacre.)

Every day since she was a baby, I’ve told Iris the story. How they came with intention. How the only thing they wanted was to see us gone. Our money gone. Our shops and schools and libraries—everything—just good and gone. And even though it happened twenty years before I was even a thought, I carry it. I carry the goneness. Iris carries the goneness. And watching her walk down those stairs, I know now that my grandbaby carries the goneness too.

The goneness finds a contemporary echo when a family member is killed in the 9/11 attack, a space that cannot be filled. Goneness appears in other forms, when Iris leaves her Catholic school, and, later, heads off to college.

Music permeates the novel, from Melody’s name (and the person who had inspired it) to the atmosphere of various locales, from Po’Boy’s recollections to Aubrey’s parentage, from Melody’s coming out song to Iris’s college playlist. Who among us does not have music associated with the events of our life?

Most good novels offer a bit of reflection on the narrative process. The person-as-a-story here reminded me of Ocean Vuong writing about our life experience as language in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

…as we dance, I am not Melody who is sixteen. I am not my parents’ once illegitimate daughter—I am a narrative, someone’s almost forgotten story. Remembered.

There are many moments in this book that reach deep. In a favorite of these, Aubrey remembers the pedestrian things he liked in his peripatetic single-parent childhood, a Whitman-esque litany of physical experience, capped with an image of fleeting, unsurpassed beauty, and desperate longing that well mirrors his love for Iris, and is absolutely heart-wrenching.

The stories within the novel are told from several alternating perspectives, Melody, Aubrey and Iris getting the most time, and Iris’s parents, Sabe and Po’Boy, getting some screen time as well. We see Iris and Aubrey as teens and adults, and are given a look at Aubrey’s childhood as well. Sabe and Po’Boy provide a contemporary perspective, but a connection back to their young adulthood too.

Woodson’s caution to the fast-reader to go back and try again is advice well worth heeding. Red at the Bone is a tapestry, with larger images, created with threads that are woven in and out, and drawn together to form a glorious whole. You will see on second, third, or further readings flickers here that reflect events from there, see the threads that had gone unnoticed on prior readings. It is a magnificent book, remarkably compact, but so, so rich. Surely one of the best books of 2019.

Review posted – December 27, 2019

Publication date – September 17, 2019

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, and Tumblr pages

My review of Woodson’s prior novel, Another Brooklyn

Interviews – Video/audio
—–The Daily Show – Trevor Noah
—————Print
—–Longreads – “We’re All Still Cooking…Still Raw at the Core”: An Interview with Jacqueline Woodson – by Adam Morgan
—–NPR – Weekend Edition – History And Race In America In ‘Red At The Bone’ – by Scott Simon
—–Shondaland – Jacqueline Woodson Will Not Be Put in a Box – by Britni Danielle

Items of Interest
—–NPR – Jacqueline Woodson: What Is The Hidden Power Of Slow Reading?
—–Wiki – The Tulsa Race Massacre
—–Rollingstone – The Tulsa Massacre Warns Us Not to Trust History to Judge Trump on Impeachment – by Jamil Smith
—–The Party – by Paul Lawrence Dunbar – read by Karen Wilson
—–Sojourner Truth’s seminal speech – Ain’t I a Woman?

Songs – both from the book and her stated playlist from the Longreads interview
—–Prince – Darling Nikki
—–Eva Cassidy – Songbird
—–EmmyLou Harris – Don’t Leave Nobody But the Baby
—–J. Cole – Young, Dumb, and Broke
—–Etta James – I’d Rather Go Blind
—–Erroll Garner – Fly Me to the Moon
—–Erroll Garner – Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time
—–The Chi Lites – Have You Seen Her?
—–Boy George – That’s the Way
—–5th Dimenion – Stoned Soul Picnic
—–Phoebe Snow – Poetry Man

Darling Nikki
Prince
I knew a girl named Nikki I guess you could say she was a sex fiend,
I met her in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine,
She said how’d you like to waste some time and I could not resist when I saw little Nikki grind.
She took me to her castle and I just couldn’t believe my eyes,
She had so many devices everything that money could buy,
She said “sign your name on the dotted line.” The lights went out and Nikki started to grind.
Nikki
The castle started spinning or maybe it wa my brain.
I can’t tell you what she did to me but my body will never be the same.
Awe, her lovin will kick your behind, she’ll show you no mercy
But she’ll sure ‘nough, sure ‘nough show you how to grind
Come on Nikki
I woke up the next morning, Nikki wasn’t there.
I looked all…
Sometimes the world’s a storm.
One day soon the storm will pass
And all will be bright and peaceful.
Fearlessly bathe in the,
Purple rain
Source: LyricFind

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City, Reviews

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown

book cover

…he started out with his eyes firmly on the guiding star, his feet planted on the path, but that’s the thing about the life you walk—you start out pointed true North, but you vary one degree off, it doesn’t matter for maybe one year, five years, but as the years stack up you’re just walking farther and farther away from where you started out to go, you don’t even know you’re lost until you’re so far from your original destination you can’t even see it anymore – Don Winslow

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown – Henry IV Part 2 – W. Shakespeare

After eighteen years in the NYPD, Detective Sergeant Denny Malone has good cause for unease. The de facto king of Manhattan North has seen considerable upheaval in his kingdom. He may be, effectively, the head of this select unit, charged with going after gangs, drugs, and guns. “Da Force” may have unusually free rein to do as they see fit to accomplish their goals. But a turf war between competing providers of recreational pharmaceuticals is growing increasingly kinetic, with one of the combatants looking to purchase a considerable supply of death-dealing hardware. Not OK. The captain is pressing for a high-publicity bust. There is also the perennial political dance one must perform to keep the brass at One Police Plaza and the political suits from interfering with business as usual. Of course, what passes for business as usual might not look all that good splashed across the front pages of the local tabloids.

description
Don Winslow – image from Milanonera.com

Bribery may be the grease that keeps the wheels of civilization turning, but it leaves a lot of cops with very dirty hands. Denny is no saint, and no Serpico. He may mean well for the community he is charged with protecting, but his methods often lack the soft gleam of legality. We first meet him as he arrives in federal lockup. The novel then goes back to show how he got there. Slippery slope stuff. See the greased wheels above.

The street stays with you.
It sinks into your pores and then your blood.
And into your soul? Malone asks himself. You gonna blame that on the street too?
Some of it, yeah.
You’ve been breathing corruption since you put on the shield, Malone thinks. Like you breathed in death that day in September. Corruption isn’t just in the city’s air, it’s in its DNA, yours too.
Yeah, blame it on the city, blame it on New York.
Blame it on the Job,
It’s too easy, it stops you from asking yourself the hard question.
How did you get here?
Like anyplace else.
A step at a time.

Lines are crossed here with the frequency of runners reaching the end of the NYC marathon. Early on, Denny and his crew take out a major distributor, whack the principal, and skim off a significant portion of the captured product, a bit of an extra retirement fund. Some people are a tad upset by this. It’s not exactly much of a secret, though, and there are those who would like to see Denny being saluted by the entire force in Dress Blues and white gloves while someone plays Taps.

One of the great powers of this novel is the perspective offered on diverse forms of human behavior. Is Denny a brute for roughing up a guy who beat up a kid? Definitely outside the law, but are his actions effective? Denny really does care about the people in his kingdom. He cuts slack when possible, and brutalizes when it is called for. But the law seems a lot more of a recommendation than an absolute.

Winslow offers a close up look at a dark element of police culture. How does being on the take work? Who gets what? How is money distributed? Who is it ok to accept bribes from? What is allowed that would otherwise be justiceable? And why do the cops here consider it ok? He offers as well a moving look at the human relationships that make up police life, the code of honor, the power of partnership, the requirement that all members of the team partake of the ill-gotten, if only as a means of self-protection, the wives who turn a blind eye to where that extra cash may have originated, and what their breadwinner may be up to when the crew parties hard, up to a point anyway. The interaction between the police and people in their area is rich with real affection, as well as the expected cynicism. Some of these scenes are stunningly moving, tissue worthy.

How about the relationship between cops and the local criminal element? You might be reminded of those cartoons in which Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote punch a time clock, go at it, then clock out at the end of the day, friends. The cops and criminals often seem cut from the same cloth, although the baddest of the bad guys are certainly much worse than the worst of the cops. And the bullets really kill. Winslow does not spare the one-percent, either, in his look at layers of amorality.

Don Winslow is a seasoned writer at the pinnacle of his craft.

Malone drives past the Wahi diner and the mural of a raven on 155th. Past the church of the Intercession, but it’s too late for Intercession, past Trinity Cemetery and the Apollo Pharmacy, the Big Brother Barber shop, Hamilton Fruits and Vegetables and all the small gods of place, the personal shrines, the markers of his life on these streets that he loves like a husband loves a cheating wife, a father loves a wayward son.

There are wonderful nuggets of law enforcement intel in here. Like the notion of testilying. Or what is considered proper attire for a day on the stand. How about special celebratory nights for a crew? The upside of EMTs not taking a Hippocratic oath. Rules for note-taking on the job. How 9/11 saved the mob. Planning your crimes so they cross as many precinct boundaries as possible, increasing the likelihood that a paperwork snafu will botch a prosecution. On tribes within the force.

Winslow has a Damon Runyon-esque ear for character names. My favorites were a CI named Nasty Ass, and another the cops call Oh No, Henry, and a linguist’s appreciation for the local patois. Or maybe that would be another well-known teller of tales. (I think Dickens is one of the progenitors of noir fiction, writing as he did about the criminal underclass.) He peppers the novel with delicious small side-stories. Tales told in a bar by guys who have been spinning yarns for a lifetime. They give us occasional breathers from the breakneck pace.

He takes on topics that will resonate, from Blue on Black violence, and the resulting reactions, to how the jails are functioning as de facto mental hospitals and detox centers. From a consideration of God and the Church (Denny is not a fan) to the impact of the job on people’s lives. Denny recalls his father. He was a cop on these streets, coming home in the morning after a graveyard shift with murder in his eyes, death in his nose and an icicle in his heart that never melted and eventually killed him. From how cops cope with the daily horrors to how the crime numbers are cooked to support whatever preconceived outcome was desired. On the Iron Pipeline, the route on which legal guns from Texas, Arizona, Alabama and the Carolinas become illegal guns in NYC. The politics of police tactics and voting. The hatred and respect the cops have for the best defense lawyers. Their relationship with reporters. You trust a reporter like you trust a dog. You got a bone in your hand, you’re feeding him, you’re good. Your hand’s empty, don’t turn your back. You either feed the media or it eats you.

Denny may be dirty, but you will be dashing along with him and hoping for the best. Maybe this whole situation can be fixed. He is a rich, multi-faceted character, and you will most definitely care what happens to him. Think Popeye (Gene Hackman) of The French Connection, or Lieutenant Matt Wozniak (Ray Liotta) on the wonderful TV show Shades of Blue.

You might want to secure your seat belt and make sure that your Kevlar is all where is it is supposed to be. This is a non-stop, rock’em, sock’em high-speed chase of a novel, a dizzying dash through an underworld of cops, criminals, and those caught in the middle, screeching stops, and doubling backs, hard lefts, harder rights, and Saturn V level acceleration. Once you catch your breath after finishing the final pages I expect you’ll find yourself realizing just what a treat it has been. The Force is not just a great cop book, it is a great book, period, a Shakespearean tragedy of high ideals brought low, with one of the great cop characters of all time. The Force is an instant classic.

Review posted – February 24, 2017

Publication date – June 20, 2017

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Don Winslow has written many books. Some have been made into films. I have read none of them, so can offer no real insight into what carried forward from his prior work, or where new notions or techniques may have come into play. I read this totally as a stand-alone.

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

This page has many links to related interviews and materials

An article by Winslow in Esquire – EL CHAPO AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE HEROIN CRISIS

Interviews
—– Litsack
—–Hi. My name is Don Winslow, and I’m a writing addict – by John Wilkins for the San Diego Union Tribune

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Filed under Cops, Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City, Reviews

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

book cover

He hesitated. Above him, an ear-splitting screech. He looked up to see three enormous crows, perched on the bare branches of one of the few trees that had already dropped its leaves. They were all squawking at once, as if they were arguing about his next move. Directly beneath, in the midst of the stark and barren branches and at the base of a forked limb, a mud-brown leafy mass. A nest. Jesus.

Leo checked the time and started walking.

When Leo Plumb, 46, and very unhappily married, enjoying the benefits of booze, cocaine, and Welbutrin, picks up 19-year-old waitress, Matilda Rodriguez, at a wedding, it’s business as usual. But the joys of the moment come to a crashing halt when the Porsche in which Leo is spiriting her away, the car in which she is putting her hand to good use, is T-boned by an SUV, and Matilda is seriously injured. It’s gonna take mucho dinero to put the lid on this one.

I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Good news? OK. The good news, for Leo anyway, is that there is a considerable family inheritance left by his late father, which can be raided for emergencies. Staying out of jail counts, so how much should we make this check out for? The bad news is that the inheritance was intended for four siblings and Leo’s indiscretion has slashed the total considerably. They are very interested in knowing when Leo is going to re-feather the nest he had just raided like a raccoon in the night.

book cover

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney – From her Twitter pages

Leo Tolstoy famously said All happy families resemble each other, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Plumb family is unhappy in diverse ways. Sweeney measures their depths. The family refers to their inheritance as The Nest, and their relationship to it, with Leo’s raiding of it, constitutes the core around which this family tale is woven. His charm and skill at manipulation will not be enough to get Leo out of this mess. He may have bought his way out of a jail sentence, but he still needs to come up with some serious cash to make The Nest whole again. He hasn’t exactly been working in the many years since he sold his on-line media business. And there is his bitch of a trophy wife to keep up. She is very fond of spending.

The Plumbs, despite their father’s financial success, are not wildly wealthy. Melody, nearing 40, is a suburban housewife, struggling to make ends meet in a place where she is very much on the lower economic rungs. She has twin daughters on the verge of college and could really use the money she has been expecting. Beatrice had some success as a writer years ago, but it has been a long time since she produced any writing of quality. She lives in an Upper West Side apartment , a love nest given to her by a late lover, which ain’t nuthin’, especially in NYC, but it’s not like she can sit home and clip coupons either. She has remained in a low-end job long after she should have grown to something more. Finally, Jack has been in a couple with Walter for many years. He runs an antiques shop that specializes in losing money. Walter is the breadwinner of the pair, but Jack would like to be depositing instead of constantly withdrawing. He is in debt up to his eyeballs. The potential absence of his bailout money from The Nest is a blow, so when a shady opportunity presents itself, he has to decide where he is willing to draw the line..

In this ensemble cast, we follow the siblings, along with a smattering of others, through their travails, and see them come to grips, or not, with the possible loss of a nest egg they had all been counting on for a long time. The issues they face are not merely how to cope with a cash flow shortfall. Sweeney has larger targets in her sights. The characters here are faced with moral choices. How would you have managed, given the situation? How would any of us? It is certainly the case, for all but the most blessed (and we hate them) that our hopes and dreams for this or that, whether a relationship, a career direction, parenthood, something, go all to hell. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Which is nice if you are fond of aphorisms. Sometimes, what doesn’t kill us leaves us frightened, damaged, and scarred. (I mean, they don’t call it Post Traumatic Stress Improvement, do they?) Sometimes it can open a door to a new appreciation, offer a new path, uncover an unseen possibility. Or it closes all available doors, locks the windows and drops a match on a kerosene covered floor. I’m just sayin’. Two paths, at least for each of the sibs. Which will they take? What sorts of people do they want to be? And how will they emerge, battered or better?

In addition to the choices having to do with facing up to identity crises, and coping with losses real or theoretical, there are some other items here that are very well handled. Sweeney has painted a portrait of some elements of NYC at a particular place and time. These include a bit of a look at the local literary scene, whether one is doing well or struggling, in on the dot.com or killed by it, mean Glitterary Girl or faded sparkle. Authors, wannabes, publishers of paper and on-line magazines, trip through the pages. Some are more about appearance than substance.

She’d been hiding in a corner of Celia’s enormous living room, pretending to examine the bookshelves, which were full of what she thought of as “fake” books—the books were real enough but if Celia Baxter had read Thomas Pynchon or Samuel Beckett or even all—any!—of the Philip Roths and Saul Bellows lined in a row, she’d eat her mittens. In a far upper corner of the bookcase, she noticed a lurid purple book spine, a celebrity weight-loss book. Ha. That was more like it. She stood on tiptoe, slid the book out, and examined the well-thumbed, stained pages. She returned it to shelf front and center, between Mythologies and Cloud Atlas.

There is a walk through several places in the city, each offering a taste. The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, a brownstone in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, a bit of Central Park, a Westchester suburb. 9/11 is a part of the story as well, as is, although to a lesser degree, the insanity that is the NY real estate market.

The Nest is, ultimately, about stepping off the edge of safety into the air, and either finding out you can fly or flapping uselessly to a sudden end. And, of course, considering whether or not to simply hitch a ride on a passing pigeon.

None of it would mean a lick if the characters were merely raucous chicks, lobbying for the next worm. Sweeney has put together more of an aviary, with each main member of her ensemble fully feathered and flight-worthy. Even a teen-age twin must consider separating from the intense co-nesting of sisterhood, and finding her own flight path. While not all the main characters are people you would care to know, they are all fully realized. Hell, even some of the secondary characters are presented in 3D. Their motivations and actions make sense, whether you agree or not with their decisions. There is nuance and depth even to the more morally challenged. I expect that you will find situations and/or conditions in here that resonate with challenges and decisions you have faced in your own life. The economic downturn has hit many of us, even if we need not look to our own reckless personal behavior as a cause. No need to wonder how most of us will behave when faced with some of the problems raised here. We have already adjusted our expectations. But there is value in seeing how others react.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s last book was slightly different from this one, Country Living Easy Transformations: Kitchen With this book. Sweeney takes a step into the open air of literary accomplishment. She has spread her wings and caught a rising thermal. The Nest has not only succeeded in feathering Sweeney’s nest quite nicely, it offers a smart, funny, engaging, and insightful read that will accommodate your peepers quite nicely, and is sure to settle comfortably in many top ten nests lists when those finally begin appearing.

Review posted – 11/27/15

Publication date – 3/22/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, New York City, Reviews