Tag Archives: New York City

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.

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


—– 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

Shop Cats of New York by Tamar Arslanian

book cover
There may be eight million stories in the naked city (well, closer to nine these days). But that only counts people. What about some of our other citizens? How many times have you walked into a shop and spotted the resident mouser strolling down an aisle, busily guarding a shelf, or splayed in the front window? They are so common as to have become an embedded element of the urban landscape. But their very ubiquity has made them somewhat invisible. We accept them as part of our environment, and pay them little attention. But Tamar Arslanian noticed, and decided to write a book featuring these often unnoticed New Yorkers.

It was one of those times when my wife, in a flurry of OMGs, blew through our front door and announced in full capital letters. YOU HAVE GOT TO SEE THIS. The this, of course, was the book under review here, Shop Cats of New York. If she had done this twenty years earlier, I would not have been very interested. And my first wife probably would have wondered just who the hell that woman was. At that time I was not only cat-free, but the proud owner of a considerable cat allergy. Things change.

Author Tamar Arslanian interviews the Neergaard Pharmacy representative

The portraits in this collection include brief write-ups about the cats in question, ranging from considerable to pretty-much non-existent, with most falling in the one to three paragraph middle range. There are some moving tales told, along with the sort of cat-as-local-royalty picture one might expect. The photographs look good enough to make you want to rub the side of your head up against them, repeatedly.

As happens with about half the marriages in the USA, my first went the way of dial-up. In late 1998, I was looking for an apartment, but also someone else to share the rest of my life with. I suppose one could say that at the time I was a bit of a stray, not exactly homeless, but certainly unsettled. I partook of Match.com, including the sort of profile millions of other people have penned. Mine was probably typical enough, blah-blah-blah, three kids, blah-blah-blah, systems analyst, blah-blah-blah Mets fan, blah-blah-blah, and Sorry, no cats. Allergic. I met several women, but was particularly intrigued by one. Despite the fact that we had engaged in a considerable series of on-line exchanges, it turned out she had issues with reading.

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Shadow on arrival – shot by Cat Rescuer pal, Sara

There are 36 chapters in Shop Cats of New York. Most cover individual kitties. Three deal in multiples. One of these looks at a pets supply store that also fosters, one looks at the campus cats of Pratt Institute, and the third tells of The Meow Parlour on the Lower East Side, a “cat cafe” that specializes in adopting cats out to local residents.

The first time I went to visit my new friend at her place, I was in for a surprise. She was sharing her apartment. Her room-mates kept their distance but they made their presence felt anyway. In short order my eyes began to itch. Soon after, my nose began to run. Within thirty minutes of my arrival I was struggling to breathe and bolting for the door. Ummm, about that cat thing.

Photographer Andrew Marttila checking in at the Algonquin

Andrew Marttila’s photographs are wonderful, capturing the expressiveness of the featured furries in their now-native habitat. These include a fair range of commercial enterprises, from a copy shop to a brewery, from bookstores to, surprisingly, a boutique for dogs, from a bike shop to a pharmacy. One thing that struck me as a bit odd was the absence of representation from both The Bronx and Staten Island. Hey, wuddah we? Chopped livah?

I guess she was interested enough in me to risk not copping to the kitties. And I guess I was interested enough in her to take on a steady diet of whatever allergy med seemed to work at the time. It also seemed a reasonable thing to try to build up a bit of tolerance. About a year later, I was living in a garden apartment in Park Slope, with access to a back yard, when I started getting a regular visitor. This good-sized black cat showed his puss near my back door more and more. I started putting out some food for him. Then left my back door open until he began risking visits inside. After a few of these. I closed the door behind him. He did not seem to mind. I called him Pitch. He was my first cat.

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Julian and Nala have been bosom buddies ever since we brought them home – shot by Mary Ann

Arslanian asked the shop owners for their cats’ origin stories. Many are rescues.

According to Neergard pharmacist Lana, “Ivy was found as a wee kitten pulling tricks on the gritty streets of Brooklyn’s Park Slope.”

Geez, talk about mean streets. Some came along with the building or business when a new owner took over.

We moved in together in 2001, marrying later that year. My Pitch joined her Madison, Winnie and Bo. There would be more. One morning a small stray tried to follow Mary Ann into the subway. It was not her first encounter with this kittie. She was so small we believed her to be a kitten. Concerned for her safety, she brought the wee beastie back upstairs before heading out to work again. I was not thrilled at the prospect of yet another cat being added to our pack. We put her in my daughters’ bedroom. That night when Mary Ann got home from work, she came into the room, and there I was like a thief with his hand in the cookie jar, holding this little cat in my arms in the same way I had held my tiny humans not so long ago. Forgotten was the notion of trying to find another home for her. I looked up at my wife, sheepishly, and said, “She had me at meow.” Turned out she was as large as she would ever get. We called her Little Cat. or LC for short.

One of many shots available at the FB page for the book

A fair number of these cats have fans, locals who stop by for a scratch-n-rub. But some of these contemporary kitties have on-lion (sorry) presences as well. The shop cats range in temperament from sweet to imperious, from scratch-me-rub-me-love-me attention-whores to full-on Travis Bickle. “Are you lookin’ at me?” Tiny, the cat in charge of the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, seems particularly fearless.

Customers come in with their dogs assuring the staff they are ok with cats, to which the staff responds, “Well, our cat is not ok with dogs. If you see Tiny up in the shelves following you, your dog is being stalked.”

Madison 554//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

In the mid aughts, a work friend of Mary Ann’s at Harper was about to relocate out of the country. His wife had gotten a job with the State Department, and they had very little notice before they would have to leave. In order to be able to take their two cats along, they would have had to put them into seriously prolonged quarantine. They were not confident that both would survive the experience. That is how Anakin and Kiki joined our herd.

They may sleep sixteen to twenty hours a day, but these are working cats, with diverse jobs, in addition to their traditional rodent management portfolios.

When I asked the only desk-less guy there [MPH messenger service] if he was security, he nodded in Sammy’s direction. “He’s security.”

One Red Hook cat helps close deals as an assistant sales rep for a glass products company by sitting on customers’ laps.

And your total is… – From Shop Cats FB pages

For any who may wonder at the ability of felines to feel, there is a particularly moving tale of one cat mourning the passing of his sister.

In 2011, a surprise was found at my mother-in-law’s place in Wilkes Barre. A stray had taken up residence on the back porch. When Mary Ann, there for a visit, picked her up, there were two babies beneath her. Her mother was actually ok with taking them in. The mom was named Isabelle and the babies were Oscar and Felix. We had intended to head out there for a visit a few weeks later. Get Isabelle to the vet, and have the babies checked out. But Hurricane Irene had other plans, and we did not manage the trip until enough later to matter. Isabelle had managed to get mommified again, this time with Scout and Boo. So we had a triple-A team of cats in residence in Wilkes Barre. It was good company for mom, who was getting on. We helped out with cat costs, buying food, litter and dealing with vets. We had expected to bring them to Brooklyn over time. It was during this period that another arrival turned up. Tabitha had been showing up in the Wilkes Barre back yard looking for food, and getting it. But came inside a time or two when it got very cold. One time was when we were there on a visit. She came into the kitchen, but was so terrified of the other cats that she hid under the stove. To our great surprise mom-in-law asked us to take her back with us, afraid that her brood would harm the outsider. In January 2015, my mother-in-law passed, peacefully, in her sleep, a favorite German shepherd companion at her side. Our triple-A team would be moving up to the majors. Well, somewhat. Some of them were particularly gifted at evading capture. But we did bring home Isabelle, Scout and Oscar.

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Scout on the couch – shot by Mary Ann

Shop Cats may stretch the definition of the word shop a bit, including a chapter on the cats of Brooklyn’s Pratt University. We learn of the attempt by those in charge to make Pratt a cat-free zone, which is enough to make one want to hack up a hairball, and leave it in management’s shoes. But it is certainly a forgivable extension, considering the subject matter.

We have lost several of our four-footed children to the ravages of age. They had lived lives that were respectably lengthy, but it was heart-breaking to lose them. There would be two more sets of incomings. We have a friend in Wilkes Barre who is a registered cat-rescuer. She is a saint, in our view, who has helped many a feline shift from living on the streets to finding a safe, loving home. However, there was a time when she needed a temporary place for many of her wards. Mom’s place in W-B was offered, and a dozen or so squatters took up residence. Two of them took a shine to Mary Ann and me when we were there. The result was Nala and Julian. On another trip to W-B, we had intended to retrieve Felix from the cat angel of W-B, but he was clearly happy to remain where he was. It so happened that at the time there was another resident in that illustrious cat house that was in need of placement. He was young, but no longer a kitten. What set him apart was that he had an extra digit on all four paws. We named him for Ernest Hemingway, as the cats at Papa’s Key West home were known for being polydactyl. So Nesto signed on.

King Jeffie of the Brooklyn whiskey distillery – an outtake on the FB page

The stories told here are mostly sweet and adorable. But there are one or two occasions where those stories include reports on the cats’ more predatory inclinations.

But wait. there’s more. In the last few months Mary Ann had been finding other people in our neighborhood who have been feeding some of the local ferals (there are many), and a get-together was arranged. Brunch was had. A plan was made. Ferals were trapped. One was checked out, then brought to a family in upstate NY (not a euphemism). Two others were brought to our rescuer pal in Wilkes Barre. And we are currently fostering a mom and her three babies, and one more, a beautiful tabby, probably under a year old. But it came to pass that one night, after heading out with her fellow trappers, Mary Ann returned home with about three ounces of rescued lovability clutched to her clavicle. Neither of us had ever had a kitten. We do now. Shadow has joined the pride. It will take a while for her to be safe, being set loose among the considerable fully-grown group that ranges free in our apartment. I can well imagine Nala prancing across the living room with a tiny black tail hanging out of her mouth. But eventually Shadow, who is dying to play with the big kids, will find her place among the burgeoning crowd. I still sneeze on occasion, probably because I have not become fully acclimated to the newbies yet. But I have not been driven to an allergy-driven asthmatic panic in so long I cannot actually recall when that last occurred. Our children may throw up on the floor, shred our furniture, knock things from their places, and generate unspeakable aromas at times, but we love them, and expect that the feeling is shared. They are good company, with lots of personality. Their addiction to catnip and laser pointers offers moments of true hilarity. And their fondness for snuggling reinforces our mutual affection. I am glad Mary Ann had issues with reading. I am glad I was able to manage my allergy. It is a considerable, loving family we have patched together. And that is nothing to sneeze at.

Nesto is a polydactyl, which gives him nearly supernatural climbing ability

Shop Cats of New York may be a local look, but it certainly represents a global phenomenon. There are plenty of representatives wherever you live, guaranteed. The next time you stop into a shop, take a look around, and see if there might be a silent prowling proprietor in residence. Odds are he or she will welcome a gentle scratch behind the ears or under the chin, or a gentle cranial rub. You might even sweeten the deal with a cat treat or two (delivered surreptitiously). And if you are feeling particularly bold you might inquire into the cat’s name, where he or she came from and if he or she would mind sitting, standing, or lying down for a photo. For anyone with a fondness for the feline, you might want to give Shop Cats of New York a place in your home. It will make you purrrrrr, now and forever. It’s cat-tastic!

Review First Posted – 11/4/2016

Published – 11/1/2016

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Here is the link to the book’s official facebook page.

Tamar Arslanian’s blog is called, fittingly, I Have Cat. You Can find her on Instagram and Twitter as well.

Andrew Marttila’s main site, The Great Went Photo, has some amazing shots. Must see material. You can also find him on instagram, Twitter, and FB

A promotional video for the book

An interesting recent article on an upcoming PBS documentary, Cat Evolution

A New York Magazine piece on working felines at the Javits Center – Feral Cats Are Being Deployed in New York’s War on Rats – by Chas Danner

PS – the author is aware of having managed only three of NYC’s five boroughs, and plans to repair that breach with a sequel. Or several, maybe? Shop Cats, the Litter?

December 3, 2016 – Had to add this one
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Nesto at Resto or Relax (note serendipitous book title at upper right) – shot by Mary Ann – Clearly the boy is all shagged out after a long day at his desk job

February, 2017 – part of a multi-year Photo Ark project to photograph captive species before they vanish from the world, this piece looks at a host of small cats. OMGOMGOMGOMG!!! – Out of the Shadows, the Wildcats You’ve Never Seen – By Christine Dell’Amore – Photographs by Joel Sartore
The Iberian Lynx

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Filed under New York City, Non-fiction

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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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


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

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell

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The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd and 4th generations

Three sisters plan to see out the millennium together, really see it out. The agree to a mutual suicide pact (life has not been particularly kind), to be carried out as midnight approaches on December 31, 1999. (We doan need no steenking millennium). As a part of this deal they agree to write a family history in which the end is really…you know…the end. A Reunion of Ghosts is that, rather lengthy, suicide note. Sounds cheery, no?

One might suspect that some families might carry forward propensities, whether by DNA, the class-based transmission of means and opportunities, or, maybe something even darker. So much nicer for folks to have a familial propensity for, say red hair, or artistic achievement, like the Wyeths, or Brontes, or Marsalises, maybe an athletic endowment. The Alou boys pop to mind. Sometimes, however, what is passed down is less rewarding. If there are detectable genetic markers for suicide, these folks would probably light up the test like a Christmas tree, although, of course, being Jewish, it might be a Channukah bush instead. There is even a chart on page 8 of my ARE listing members of the family with when, where and how they pruned themselves. It could make for the beginning of darker version of Suicide Clue. Is it Great Grandfather Lenz in a hotel with morphine, maybe Great Grandmother Iris in the garden with a gun, or Grandfather Richard in the bedroom with an open window, maybe Mother in the Hudson with a Bridge? It goes on. I do not want to give the impression that the only way out is DIY. For good measure there are plenty of non-suicide deaths as well. But the question is raised, can the crimes of our forbears curse future generations? Are we to be held accountable for the dark doings of our parents, grand-parents, great-grand-parents? What if we are not, but think that we may be? Is history destiny?

book cover

Judith Claire Mitchell

There is certainly considerable family history here, however much individual tales might have been truncated. The story flips back and forth between the lives of the sisters (and within sundry periods of their lives) and the lives of their ancestors in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The oldest sister is Lady, approaching fifty. She wears nothing but black; Delph is the youngest, at 42. It is on her calf that the introductory quote is inked, a bible item uttered by their mother when JFK was shot. She is cursed with seeing peoples thoughts in bubbles as they pass. (Then never—not ever—have anything nice to say about anyone.); Vee is in the middle, and losing her latest battle with cancer. The three contend with scarring of one sort or another.They live on Riverside Drive in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in an apartment their family has inhabited for ages.

The three let us in on pieces of their lives, loves sought, found and lost, sometimes tossed. Hearts are broken. They are very engaging, relatable and often very funny. Their conversations sometimes effervesce. There are wits aplenty to go around and we are witness to the banter. Whereas the sisters’ dramas tend to the personal, however difficult, awful mates, lousy luck, the issues of their ancestors are painted on a more colorful European palette. They endure personal travails, for sure, but the issues are a touch larger.

The Alter family originated in what is now Germany. Members of the clan were involved in various enterprises and professions. One owned a dye factory, another was responsible for technology that increased agricultural yields dramatically. One was a brilliant, educated woman struggling to find a place in an exclusively male world. There are plenty of colorful sorts in the family history, including a homosexual, malarial dwarf, who was also Germany’s trade ambassador to Japan. Wedded bliss was hardly the norm, and there are sundry carryings-on. One family shares space with Albert Einstein and his relatively miserable marriage. One bright light concocts and supervises the implementation of some very, very dark science. And of course, there is that familiar issue of Jewishness in Germany. While the sisters’ contemporary tales are relatable and moving, I found the historical segments much more interesting and fun, however distressing the content.

Aside from destiny, there are concrete ways in which the travails of one generation are visited on the next.

“All I said to her was the truth. It’s the same thing I said after the other two were born. The lesson from the camp. I tell it to Lady and Vee, too. When they’re asleep. ‘Never love anyone too much. You never know when they might be taken away.’ I whisper it in their ears. Every night, I whisper it.”

There are plenty of literary bits in here, but Mitchell keeps them at a reasonable level. The females in the family are all named for flowers. Color is a presence across generations. There is a wonderful piece on horizontal light, another on acausal time. But it is not the flourishes that carry the day, it is the characters and their tales, very well told.

Not really a spoiler. A bit of a rant here, which should not take up actual review space, but which requires an outlet, so, a su-aside (I have not yet figured out how to emulate the spoiler tag I used in Goodreads, so this thing is taking up space it was not intended to. Sorry. ) Really, fate, schmate. We are all given a hand. It may suck, or it may be a flush. Point is that it is up to us what to do with the hands we are dealt. It is definitely true that there are real-world limitations, whether because of how society or one’s DNA is organized. Maybe the damage we have suffered has become too much, or our resources for keeping on have become too depleted. Tossing away one’s life can be understandable when one is faced with having to endure extreme pain or loss of self en route to the end of the line with a terminal illness. Depression factors large in the world today, and, untreated, steals one’s resolve to carry on. And I am sure there are probably other understandable reasons to go all Kevorkian. But to give up in the absence of such extremes, the case for some of the characters here, seems an abdication of responsibility. For most of us there are at least some human connections that will be affected, so this usually solo act sends tendrils out to grip others. One’s sense of hope may have been plucked clean, but some feathers can grow back. There is a time to die for all of us, sooner, later, whenever. We take umbrage at the making of a pact by three, admittedly fictional, people to mutually cease to exist in the absence of a terminal condition times three. Maybe it is my former-Catholic DNA popping up and saying that suicide is a sin. I wouldn’t say that, but I would say that it is a waste. Society does a pretty good job of throwing away people. We do not really have to give it any extra help. Ok, rant over.

The worst thing, of course, the ultimate crime, is to even consider giving up a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive. I mean, if the rent ain’t too damn high , you can walk to Zabar’s, see the Hudson, hang out in Riverside Park and discretely shoot spitballs at the joggers who trot by in thousand dollar sweats or bikers speeding by on their five-K rides, or stand around and watch the filming of one of the three thousand cop shows that use NYC for a set, exchange snide remarks about the blight of unsightly construction on the other side of the river, get in on some excellent sunsets, have reserved seating for fireworks, and not have to give up eating and replacing your threadbare threads just to manage the monthly. If that does not make life worth living I don’t know what might. Of course now I must fear that if I write a crap review my great-grandchildren will suffer because of it. And which of my bloody ancestors, I would like to know, is responsible for the state of my bank account? Talk about being cursed.

This is a remarkable novel, able to take on very serious subject matter and maintain a very smart sense of humor at the same time. A Reunion of Ghosts is definitely well worth checking out.

Review posted – 3/13/15

Publication date – 3/24/15

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

This is Mitchell’s second novel. She teaches fiction writing to grads and undergrads at the University of Wisconsin in Madison,

A theme song for Reunion – oh yes, I did

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages


On January 8, Buzzfeed listed Reunion among 27 Of The Most Exciting New Books Of 2015

Barnes and Noble listed Reunion as one of its top picks for March 2015

The American Booksellers Association listed Reunion as one of its Indie Next Great Reads for April 2015

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