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#TuesdayBookBlog PASTA MIKE: A STORY OF FRIENDSHIP AND LOSS by Andrew Cotto (@andrewcotto) A moving and intimate account of male friendship and grief #RBRT

Hi all:

Today I bring you a short read, but a very moving one, by an author I discovered last year and I’ve talked about before, although this is a bit different.

Pasta Mike: A Story of Friendship & Loss by Andrew Cotto

Pasta Mike: A Story of Friendship & Loss by Andrew Cotto

Mike O’Shea and Andy Cotto knew each other their entire lives. Born days apart on the same block, baptized in the same water, the two friends were inseparable growing up and into adulthood.

After celebrating their 40th birthdays together, Mike falls ill and dies shortly after. The impact on Andy is enormous, and he spirals into a depression that threatens everything he holds dear.

Through memory and support, Andy is able to reconcile his grief and appreciate the power of male friendship and the beauty of life.

Pasta Mike is a testimony to the bonds men share and the vulnerabilities beneath the stoic surface.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09KT3GNFQ/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09KT3GNFQ/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B09KT3GNFQ/

Author Andrew Cotto

About the author:

Andrew Cotto is an award-winning author and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He has written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, La Cucina Italiana, AARP, Rachael Ray In Season, Maxim, The Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, Italy Magazine and more. Andrew has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

https://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Cotto/e/B006SHJK4Q/

 My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.

I first came across this author thanks to Rosie’s team and to his novel Black Irish Blues: A Caesar Stiles Mystery (a pretty peculiar small-town noir novel, here is my review), and because that was the second novel in that series, I went on to read the first, Outerborough Blues. A Brooklyn Mystery (another pretty special noir novel, this one set in New York, which I reviewed here). And I love the way the author recreates the atmosphere and the vibe of the settings of his stories (be it a district of New York or a small town), imagines compelling and unforgettable characters whose actions and words keep us glued to the pages, and as an added attraction for foodies, there is always a fair amount of cooking and juicy descriptions of delicious dishes thrown in as well.

Pasta Mike, although in a totally different genre (I found it listed under biographical fiction), shares many of those characteristics. We get a beautiful picture of what Queens was like when the characters were children, in the late sixties and early seventies, (and there is still some of that left at the time the current events are set), with some descriptions of other parts of the city, and recent events. Andy is a walker, and we accompany him in his strolls that help him reflect on things and reach new insights. I’ll talk about Mike a bit later, but although we only get to briefly glimpse at other characters (this is a novella and pretty short), we have memorable grandmothers, mothers who bond over their pregnancy, girlfriends, wives, neighbours, shop owners, and bartenders, all of them real people we could meet and would be happy to have a chat with. And there is plenty of talk of food and cooking (mostly Italian), as those are not only an important part of Andy and Mike’s culture and way of life and are strongly linked to their childhood, but are also comforting and, for Andy, cooking is a creative and therapeutic activity.

 The description gives readers a big clue that this is a story that, at least in part, is about the author, and about his dearest friend from childhood. I am aware that some of the details have been changed, so I don’t know how far the story strays from the actual history of the two friends, but that is inconsequential. The story would be moving even if it were about fictional characters, but knowing it is based on reality makes it more powerful. Because, although things are slowly changing, the social expectations of what a man’s behaviour should be like, and how he should react to the loss of a best friend, would dictate keeping up a façade of strength and stoicism, and never digging into or expressing one’s feelings. Yes, perhaps getting drunk, perhaps sharing amusing anecdotes with other friends, and probably feeling sad in private, but never talking about it. But falling to pieces completely, having to rebuild himself, and writing about it… That is not so common. And it does take courage.

I loved Mike. He is a fabulous character, larger than life (physically as well as for all his qualities, his charm, his kindness, and his heroism. He is a true friend to his friends, and there are so many of those…), and as sometimes happens with our best and oldest friends, even though Andy and he had separate lives and did very different things when they met it was as if they had only said goodbye to each other a few hours earlier. The story is told in the first person by Andy, a teacher, and a writer, and that is evidenced by the beautiful descriptions of places, memories, and feelings. The story starts at a particular point, which becomes very significant for Andy, as it will be the last good memory he got to share with Mike, and then we follow his wandering mind back and forth, learning about their childhood —the everyday and the momentous events—, their adulthood, and we learn more about both, especially about Andy. His life had already undergone major changes before he lost his friend, but realising that he wouldn’t have Mike by his side to help him carry on comes as a shock to him, and this novel is both a memorial to his friend and a way to process his feelings and to share with others that process. There are no easy recipes and no rights or wrongs when it comes to dealing with loss, but brushing it under a carpet or drowning it in a bottle of alcohol are not the best options.

I don’t have any negative things to say about this novella, other than it is quite short, and as warnings, there is plenty of drinking of alcohol; if you’re on a diet, the food descriptions might be too mouthwatering to resist; and readers who have lost someone dear and near might want to be cautious. I know some people prefer to avoid reading about the subject, while others find it helpful. That is something only each person knows. I think many people will easily identify with the feelings of loss, hopelessness, and helplessness of the main character, with his sense of shame at his reaction and his inability to carry on with life as normal, and with his difficulty talking about it and seeking help. The book has many funny and heartwarming moments, and I would not class it as sad or melancholy overall, although there are very moving and poignant moments as well, as can be imagined.

As this is a short novella, I’ll only share one quote, but any prospective readers can easily check a sample of it.

There was nothing to do, not eat, drink, nor anything else available in the most vibrant city in the world, paralyzed emotionally and spiritually as I was, so I trudged closer and closer to home in what felt like a death march, the cold creeping into my bones with its sights on my soul.

I recommend this book to anybody looking for a short and compelling read, especially if you love a New York setting, like first-person biographical fiction, and appreciate moving stories of male friendship. Oh, and to Italian food fans.

Thanks to Rosie and her team for all the support, thanks to the author, for another wonderful book, and especially thanks to all of you for being there, for reading, for commenting, for sharing, and for the support. Stay safe and keep smiling.

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog OUTERBOROUGH BLUES. A BROOKLYN MYSTERY by Andrew Cotto (@andrewcotto) Brooklyn, noir, cooking: a winning recipe #noirnovel

Hi all:

I revisit an author whose book intrigued me a great deal, as he manages to combine very different elements and make them function incredibly well somehow.

Outerborough Blues. A Brooklyn Mystery by Andrew Cotto

Outerborough Blues: A Brooklyn Mystery by Andrew Cotto 

A beautiful young French girl walks into a bar, nervously lights a cigarette, and begs the bartender for help in finding her missing artist brother. In a moment of weakness, the bartender—a lone wolf named Caesar Stiles with a chip on his shoulder and a Sicilian family curse hanging over him—agrees. What follows is a stylish literary mystery set in Brooklyn on the dawn of gentrification.

While Caesar is initially trying to earn an honest living at the neighborhood watering hole, his world quickly unravels. In addition to being haunted by his past, including a brother who is intent on settling an old family score, Caesar is being hunted down by a mysterious nemesis known as The Orange Man. Adding to this combustible mix, Caesar is a white man living in a deep-rooted African American community with decidedly mixed feelings about his presence. In the course of his search for the French girl’s missing brother, Caesar tumbles headlong into the shadowy depths of his newly adopted neighborhood, where he ultimately uncovers some of its most sinister secrets.

Taking place over the course of a single week, Outerborough Blues is a tightly paced and gritty urban noir saturated with the rough and tumble atmosphere of early 1990s Brooklyn.

Andrew Cotto has written for numerous publications, including The New York TimesMen’s Journal, Salon.com, Teachers & Writers magazine and The Good Men Project. He has an MFA in creative writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

https://www.amazon.com/Outerborough-Blues-Brooklyn-Andrew-Cotto-ebook/dp/B00915UQGI/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Outerborough-Blues-Brooklyn-Andrew-Cotto-ebook/dp/B00915UQGI/

https://www.amazon.es/Outerborough-Blues-Brooklyn-Andrew-Cotto-ebook/dp/B00915UQGI/

Author Andrew Cotto

About the author:

 Andrew Cotto is an award-winning author and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He has written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, La Cucina Italiana, AARP, Rachael Ray In Season, Maxim, The Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, Italy magazine and more. Andrew has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

https://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Cotto/e/B006SHJK4Q/

 My review:

I discovered Andrew Cotto through Rosie’s Book Review Team a few months ago, when I read and reviewed his novel Black Irish Blues. A Caesar Stiles Mystery, which I loved even (or because) I found it difficult to pin down to a specific genre. Although it was stylistically a noir mystery/thriller, I thought it also shared some of the characteristics of the cozy mysteries: pretty special/peculiar/singular characters; a main protagonist that is not your standard cool, slick, and tough guy (Caesar Styles is pretty cool and fairly tough, but he tries to go unnoticed rather than advertise those characteristics); and a sizeable part of the novel being dedicated to a hobby/job/talent… of the protagonist that sometimes might be related to the mystery, although mostly marginally. In this case, the protagonist works as a cook, and he seems to be pretty talented at it as well, and he regales us with mouth-watering descriptions of meals and dishes throughout the novel. I was fascinated by this unusual combination of seemingly diverse parts and how the author managed to bring them together. And I was intrigued as well because although the story could be read independently, I became aware that a previous novel with the same protagonist had been published years back, and there were a few enticing references to what had happened before that left me wanting more. Unfortunately, at that time, the first novel was only available as a paperback, and it was not easy to get hold of.

However, the author informed me that the first novel in the series would be available in e-book format and kindly sent me an ARC copy, which I freely chose to review.

So, this is how I came to read the first novel in this series after the second. This has happened to me more than once, and although I might have got hints of what had happened before, in general, I have enjoyed checking if I was right and filling all the gaps. And yes, this is one of those occasions.

 I went through a detailed summary of my thoughts about Black Irish Blues, not only because being concise is not my forte, but also because much of what I thought and said about that novel applies here as well.

Although the novel is set in the 1990s, there are clear indicators of the social era, and the author manages to convey a very strong sense of the Brooklyn of that period, warts and all, there is also something atemporal about the novel. The descriptions of the traumatic events of Caesar’s childhood are, unfortunately, universal and timeless (bullying and domestic violence, a father who leaves the home and a mother bringing up her sons on her own, a tragedy and a life-changing decision), but there are also details reminiscent of the Depression: runaways (a boy in this case) hopping on trains, living in the streets, a wanderer learning as he goes and living off-the-grid, and others much more modern (drug wars, property speculation, a neighbourhood whose social make-up is changing and where racial tensions reflect a wider state of affairs, changes in the notions of family, loyalty, tradition…).

 And despite the noir vibe and set-up (down to the mystery that gets Caesar into all kinds of troubles: a foreign [French] young girl enters the bar where he works and asks for his help in finding her missing brother. He is an artist who came to New York to study and has now disappeared) reminiscent of classical noir novels and films of the 1940s and 50s, there is also something very modern in the way the story is told. In noir films, flashbacks and a rather dry, witty, and knowing voice-over were typical narrative devices and a sparkling and sharp dialogue was a trademark of the genre in writing as well. Here, Caesar tells his story in the first person, but this is not a straightforward narrative. The story is divided up into seven days and told in real-time, but the protagonist spends much of the novel remembering the past, reflecting upon things that had happened to him before, and we even witness some of his dreams (hopeful ones, but also those that rehearse the past), so anybody expecting a fast-paced, no spare-details-allowed kind of narrative, will be disappointed. For me, the way the story is told is one of its strengths, and there are incredibly beautiful moments in the book (Caesar is a poet at heart), although there are also some pretty violent and ugly things going on, and Caesar is the worse for wear by the end of the story. (And no, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the ending). There is something pretty intimate and personal about the way the story is told, and we get privileged access to the protagonist’s subjectivity, thoughts, and feelings, that is not typical of the classic noir genre (dark things in the past might be hinted at, but they are hardly ever looked at in detail or studied in depth. The answer to most questions can be found in the barrel of a gun).

I was looking for some information in E. Ann Kaplan’s Women in Film Noir (somewhat old now, but excellent) and a comment she made about Klute and Chinatown (some later films that fit into the noir category) rang true for me. She mentioned that both of these films seemed to show a “European” sensibility and style different to that o many of the other American crime films of the same era, and that got me thinking, as Chinatown kept popping in my head as I read this book (although Chinatown is far more classically noir than this novel), perhaps because of the subject of property speculation, of the amount of violence visited upon and endured by the protagonist, of the intricate maze of clues, illegal acts, false identities, hidden interests and influences, and secrets that fill its pages… And, considering the protagonist’s Italian origin, and the fact that the story of his grandmother opens the novel, it all seemed to fit. Although the sins of the father might be visited upon the son as well, here, the sins are those from previous generations and keep being revisited upon the members of the family left alive.

In some ways, the mystery (or mysteries, as others come to light once Caesar starts investigating and unravelling the story strand) is not the most important part of the book. At first, I thought Jean-Baptist played a part somewhat akin to Hitchcock’s concept of a MacGuffin, an excuse to get the story going, to set our character off on a quest, we learn very little about him throughout the book, and he is never given a voice or an opportunity to explain himself (we only hear other people’s opinions about him), but later I decided he was a kind of doppelgänger, a double or a mirror image of Caesar, somebody also trying to run away to find himself and to find a place where he can fit in, although, of course, this can only be achieved when one is at peace with oneself, and the protagonist reaches the same conclusion. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the ending, but let’s say that Caesar manages to put to good use his connections and to trade off good information in exchange for settling some family issues that had been hanging over him for a long time. He is not overly ambitious and although he has a sense of right and wrong and morality, he does not play the superhero and knows that some things will only be sorted out by time, and others perhaps never. But he had to attune and reach his internal peace, and that, he does.

Rather than a review, this seems to be a mash-up of a few somewhat interconnected thoughts, but I hope it gives you an idea of why I enjoyed the novel. There is plenty of wit, great descriptions, a tour-de-force banquet towards the end of the book, fabulous dialogue, and beautifully contemplative moments. I will share a few snippets, but I recommend checking a sample if you want to get a better idea of if you’d like his style or not.

At the entrance stood a large security guard who looked like he had swallowed a smaller security guard.

I was in the Mediterranean, floating in the warm water of my ancestors. I rose and fell in the hard green sea, salt in my nose and sun on my face, my fanned hair like a cape behind me. Fishing boats were moored to a nearby jetty, and brilliant white birds circled in the swimming pool sky.

Oh, and, the beginning of the book has joined my list of the best openings of a novel:

My mother’s mother came to this country in the usual way —she got on a boat with other immigrants and sailed from Sicily. She wasn’t one of them, however: neither tired nor poor or part of any huddled mass. Instead, she traveled alone, with her money in one sock and a knife in the other, coming to the new world with an old world motive— to murder the man that had left her for America.

 Don’t worry. We get to know what happened, but, if you need more of a recommendation, this is it: the rest of the novel lives up to its beginning. So, go on, read it, and I’m sure you’ll read Black Irish Blues next. Enjoy.

Thanks to the author for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and especially, keep safe and keep smiling. ♥

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