Terry has been reading Black Irish Blues by Andrew Cotto
4.5* Black Irish Blues is a long novella (or possibly a short novel) featuring Caesar Stiles, a man whose childhood was spent in a rough area of a small town in industrial New Jersey. His father left the family when Caesar was thirteen, and his two brothers are now dead; he loved the older one who died in a tragic accident, whereas the middle brother was a vicious thug. Caesar spent most of his life travelling all over the country, but returned when his mother died, moving into the family home and buying the local inn.
The story centres around blasts from the past, friends reunited, mysterious disappearances and the local gangsters. Written in the first person, much of the narrative details Caesar’s observations about small town life and his impressions of the town and people in which and with whom he grew up.
The plot is perfectly paced and structured, and fits well into the shorter length; although the story itself is fairly standard, I loved Caesar, the writing itself is as good as that of any classic American novel, and the characterisation is outstanding, making it a real page turner. All the side characters are beautifully observed, the dialogue is spot on, and the atmosphere is vivid and so well described without ever being wordy. I could tell by reading this that the author really knows his subject, along the place, time and people about whom he has written. I’ll definitely read something else by him, probably the book before, which I’ve already had a look at. Highly recommended.
Black Irish Blues is the return-to-origin story of Caesar Stiles, an erstwhile runaway who returns to his hometown with plans to buy the town’s only tavern and end his family’s Sicilian curse.
Caesar’s attempt for redemption is complicated by the spectral presence of his estranged father, reparation seekers related to his corrupt older brother, a charming crime boss and his enigmatic crew, and – most significantly – a stranger named Dinny Tuite whose disappearance under dubious circumstances immerses Caesar in a mystery that leads into the criminal underbelly of industrial New Jersey, the flawed myth of the American Dream, and his hometown’s shameful secrets.
Black Irish Blues is a poetic, gritty noir full of dynamic characters, a page-turning plot, and the further development of a unique American character.
Frank has been reading The Bird That Sang In Color by Grace Mattioli
What is the secret of happiness? According to Donna, the first person narrator of this family saga, it is doing your own thing, not making room in your life for other people.
Donna is one of six children of second generation Italian migrants living in a New Jersey suburb. Her story begins in 1970 and continues in instalments at 3 and 4 year intervals until the present day.
At the centre of the story is her older brother, Vincent, the ‘Bird that Sang in Color’ of the title. The family is comparatively well to do. All six children have everything they could possibly want. Not unnaturally their father tries to control their lives, steering them towards college and a well paid career, or, in the case of the girls, to marry a rich man. He is an alcoholic who is frequently abusive towards his wife, the matriarch who does her best to protect her children from his angry outbursts.
It is a pattern that repeats in Donna’s own marriage to a young law graduate with whom she has four children. Unlike her mother, Donna is able to have a life beyond her family responsibilities, returning to college, first as a mature student, then as a teacher. Throughout, she feels responsible for Vincent as well as her own family, encouraging him to make more of his talents as an artist and musician. It is only when she is much older that she realises how mistaken she has been.
“I started trying to convince him to listen to our parents and to take himself real seriously and go for all that stuff that I thought was necessary for him to be happy, like a good career and a family, a house, a nice car, the whole nine yards. . . [Now} I realized that he was happy without all those things, and the big irony was that I had all those things, but I was unhappy. . . I had it all, and I was miserable.”
I opened my previous review for Rosie Amber by arguing that it is wrong to characterise a book by the gender of the intended readership. After reading The Bird That Sang in Color, I’m less certain. This is very much a woman’s book, in that it presents an essentially feminist interpretation of family life, showing us the sacrifices that women make and extolling the life choices of the one male character who eschews such responsibilities.
As a man, I would have wanted to see some recognition of the fact that the comfortable life that Donna and her siblings lead is as much the consequence of their father’s hard work, and the rents paid by the tenants of the apartments his property company owns, as of their mother’s home-making. The same goes for her husband. She seems to take for granted his working two jobs whilst studying. She glosses over his frustrations at his inability to convince a biased jury that the person he is defending deserves their sympathy. She even conceives a fourth child despite being aware that he does not want it.
All too often feminists who condemn traditional family values because they limit women’s lives overlook the fact that men’s lives are similarly limited. The imperatives attached to being the sole, or main, breadwinner imprison men just as securely into careers chosen for the income generated rather than the pleasure taken in performing the task.
I disagree profoundly with Donna’s answer to the question “What is the secret of happiness.” And I suspect that, if she were honest, she would realise that her own happiness, in the company of her children and grand children, is just as valid as that which she imagines Vincent achieved in his life free of responsibilities. More so, because it has been bought by the sacrifices she and others have made.
Would I recommend this book? Absolutely, and not only to women readers. Firstly, because the periods and places are so well realised, with the kind of simple, yet revealing, strokes Donna admires in her brother’s drawings. This is writing of the highest quality. Secondly, because, whilst I disagree with the central message, it is a book that makes you think, to question your assumptions. And that is something that the best literature sets out to do. I am grateful to Grace Mattioli for making me question my own beliefs about the nature of happiness.
Part family drama and part self-actualization story, this is about Donna Greco, who in her teens, subscribes to a conventional view of success in life—and pushes her freewheeling, artistic brother, Vincent to do the same. However, he remains single, childless, and subsists in cramped apartments. She harbors guilt for her supposed failure until she discovers a sketch-book he’d made of his life, which prompts her own journey to live authentically.
While this textured story combines serious issues such as alcoholism, death, and family conflict, it’s balanced with wit and humor and is filled with endearing, unforgettable characters. The story spans decades, beginning in 1970 and ending in the present. Readers will be immersed in this tale as it poses an intriguing question: “What pictures will you have of yourself by the end of your life?”
Olga has been reading The Boy And The Lake by Adam Pelzman
For those of you who are in a hurry and prefer not to get too much background information about a book before reading it, I’ll tell you that this is a fantastic novel, one that brought me pleasant memories of the many great novels I read as part of my degree in American (USA) Literature, especially those written in the second half of the 20th century. I had never read any novels by Adam Pelzman before, but after reading this one I’m eager to catch up.
The description of the book included above provides enough details about the plot, and I won’t elaborate too much on it. There is a mystery (or at least that’s what Ben, the young protagonist believes) at the centre of the story, and when he insists on trying to find out the truth, despite his suspicions being dismissed initially by everybody, he sets into action a chain of events that ends up unravelling what at first sight seemed to be an idyllic upper-middle-class Jewish community. Despite efforts to maintain an outward appearance of order and harmony, there are signs of problems bubbling under the surface from early on. Not only the body of the woman Ben finds, but also the relationships in his family (his mother’s mood changes; his younger sister’s death prior to the novel’s action; his uncle’s desperate comedic efforts; his grandfather’s possibly not-so-clean business ethics) and there are also issues with others in the community (the father of his friend, Missy, and his difficulty keeping any jobs; the husband of the dead woman’s eagerness to replace her and his strange behaviour…), coupled with a general agitation and unhappiness with the global situation (the race riots in Newark are important to the plot of the story, and there are mentions of the many traumatic events the USA had experienced in the 1960s, from the deaths of JFK and RFK to the ongoing Vietnam War). If the novel can be seen as a coming of age story, with its customary theme of loss of innocence, it also represents the loss of innocence at a more global level, and there is plenty of symbolism in the novel to highlight that, including two toxic leaks onto the lake, with its accompanying death and destruction. Although the novel has a mystery at its heart, and people reading the beginning might think this will be a mystery novel or a thriller of sorts, I would describe it as a coming of age story cum literary fiction, and it reminded me of Phillip Roth’s novella Goodbye Columbus (the story refers to it, although not by name). It also made me think of Brick, a 2005 film, not so much for its aesthetics and style (although most of the characters in the movie are high school students there is a definite noir/hard-boiled detective story feel to it) but for the way a seemingly implausible investigation ends up unearthing more than anybody bargained for.
Although Ben and his friend Missy are the main characters, there are quite a few others that play important parts, especially Ben’s parents (Abe and Lillian), his sister, Bernice and Helen, the dead woman, both present only through memories and recollections (more or less), his grandparents, the neighbours… Also, the lake and its community (more of a character in its own right than a setting), New York, and Newark. Ben tells the story in the first person, and he is a somewhat reluctant hero, always worried about what others might think, always analysing what he has done and feeling guilty for his misdeeds (real or imagined), articulate but anxious and lacking in self-confidence. It is evident from the narration that his older self is telling the story of that year, one that came to signify a big change in his life and in that of others around him as well. He is not a rebel wanting to challenge the status (not exactly a Holden Caulfield), but rather somebody who would like to fit in and to believe that everything is as good as it seems to be. However, a nagging worry keeps him probing at the seemingly perfect surface. I liked Ben, although at times he was a bit of a Hamlet-like character, unable to make a decision, wavering between his own intuition and what other people tell him, taking one step forward and two steps back. I loved Missy, his friend, who is determined, no-nonsense, loves reading, knows what she wants and works ceaselessly to get it. Ben’s father is a lovely character (or at least that’s how his son sees him), although perhaps his attitude towards his wife is not always helpful. Ben’s mother is one of those difficult women we are used to seeing in novels, series, and films, who appear perfect to outsiders but can turn the life of their closest family into a nightmare. She is a fascinating character, but I’ll let you read the book and make your own mind up about her.
The story is not fast-paced. The language includes beautiful descriptions, and the prose flows well, following the rhythm of the seasons, with moments of calm and contemplation and others of chaos and confusion. It recreates perfectly the nostalgia of the lost summers of our youth, and it is also very apt at showing the moment an insightful youth starts to question the behaviours of the adults around him, their motivations, and their inconsistencies. I know some readers are not fond of first-person narration, but I thought it worked well here, because it provides us with a particular perspective and point of view, one that is at once participant and outside observer (Ben’s family used to spend their summers at the lake but decide to move there permanently due to the riots).
I found the ending appropriate and satisfying, given the circumstances. The mystery is solved sometime before the actual ending of the novel, but the full dénouement doesn’t come until the end, and although not surprising at that point, it is both symbolic and fitting.
As I’ve said before, this is a great book. I’ve read many excellent stories this year, but this one is among the best of them. It is not an easy-to-classify novel, although it fits into a variety of genres, and it is not for people looking for a standard mystery read, where one can easily follow the clues and reach a conclusion. It is not a fast page-turner, and there is plenty of time spent inside the head of our young protagonist rather than moving from action scene to action scene. If you enjoy beautiful writing, psychologically complex characters, and a story full of nostalgia and a somewhat timeless feel, I recommend it. There is a background of violence and some very troubling events that take place during the narration, but these are never explicitly shown or described, and although there are plenty of disturbing moments (suicide, the death of a child, episodes of drunkenness…), in most cases we only witness the consequences of those. Readers who love literary fiction and coming of age stories and especially those interested in US Literature from the later part of the 20th century should try a sample and see how it makes them feel. I strongly recommend it.
Set against the backdrop of the Newark riots in 1967, a teenage Benjamin Baum leaves the city to spend the summer at an idyllic lake in northern New Jersey. While fishing from his grandparents’ dock, the dead body of a beloved neighbor floats to the water’s surface—a loss that shakes this Jewish community and reveals cracks in what appeared to be a perfect middle-class existence. Haunted by the sight of the woman’s corpse, Ben stubbornly searches for clues to her death, infuriating friends and family who view his unwelcome investigation as a threat to the comfortable lives they’ve built. As Ben’s suspicions mount, he’s forced to confront the terrifying possibility that his close-knit community is not what it seems to be—that, beneath a façade of prosperity and contentment, darker forces may be at work.
In The Boy and the Lake, Adam Pelzman has crafted a riveting coming-of-age story and a mystery rich in historical detail, exploring an insular world where the desperate quest for the American dream threatens to destroy both a family and a way of life.