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#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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Book reviews New books

#Bookreviews THE ART OF EXILE. A VAGABOND LIFE by John Freely (@ibtauris) An Extraordinary Life Dedicated to Knowledge, Travel and Writing

Hi all:

As you know on Fridays I share new books and writers (today more than usual, but it’s a busy month). John Freely is not a new writer, far from it, but this is the first book I read by him and I expect now that I’ve discovered him, it won’t be the last one. In case you want to check a bit about him, you can check in Wikipedia or all his books (so far) in Amazon.

The Art of Exile. A Vagabond Life by Dr John Freely
The Art of Exile. A Vagabond Life by Dr John Freely

The Art of Exile. A Vagabond Life. By John Freely

As you set out for Ithaka Hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery… ‘ Constantine P. Cavafy. By the time he was six, John Freely had crossed the Atlantic four times. His childhood was spent on the mean streets of 1930s Brooklyn, where he scavenged for junk to sell and borrowed money for books; his first love being Homer’s Odyssey. He was 15 when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and 17 when he enlisted in the US Navy and embarked on the first great adventure of his life: joining a clandestine unit that helped the Kuomintang fight the Japanese. He served for two years, 96 days in combat and a total of 344 days overseas, which sparked a lifelong passion for travel. Returning home after the war, Freely fell in love with a beautiful girl who sang the blues. His own Penelope. Together they signed a blood pact to spend their life travelling the world. This unforgettable memoir takes the reader from the streets of New York to the corridors of provincial campus life; from World War II in the Pacific to the shores of the Bosphorus and from Ancient Troy to the isles of Dionysus and Ariadne. It is the story of a remarkable odyssey that has spanned nine decades, several continents and one great love. And still the odyssey continues, “as I ponder the meaning of an Ithaka and of exile as an art that takes a lifetime to master.”

Description

John Freely is a renowned travel writer and, as the first to popularise the history of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire for a general audience, he is one of our last great globe-trotting storytellers. After returning home from WW2 aged just 19, he fell in love with a beautiful girl who sang the blues. His own Penelope. Together they signed a blood pact to spend their life travelling the world.

This unforgettable memoir takes the reader from the streets of New York to the corridors of provincial campus life; from World War II in the Pacific to the shores of the Bosphorus and from Ancient Troy to the isles of Dionysus and Ariadne. It is the story of a remarkable odyssey that has spanned nine decades, several continents and one great love.

Advance Praise

“Imagine Zorba the Greek as a wandering Irishman from Brooklyn and you have the beginnings of John Freely. His odyssey has been a wild ride across continents, a microcosm of modern history. Freely is a born storyteller and an expert on everything from mysticism to physics to the back streets of Athens, Istanbul and Venice. The only danger of reading this book is envy for such a dazzling life.” – Stephen Kinzer

“John Freely provides a wonderful portrait of Istanbul and Athens in their bohemian heyday” – Philip Mansel
My review

Thanks to Net Galley and to I.B.Tauris for offering me a copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.

I wish (like many of us) I was more of a traveller, but when I received an e-mail about this book, a memoir of sorts of John Freely, I was interested for many reasons. Although I hadn’t read his books, I’m always interested in books about writers (professional deformation, I guess). He’s written extensively about travelling, and as I said before I have a long list of places I’d love to visit, among them many Dr Freely has written about (and I’m always happy to be inspired and encouraged to take up more travel). And the title of the book, ‘the art of exile’ appealed to me because I’ve lived away from my own country for many years and I always feel an affinity for those in similar circumstances, even when their lives and mine couldn’t be more different.

John Freely has written many travel books, although as I understand from his own and others’ descriptions, they are not your standard travel book, but rather investigations and reflections about culture, architecture, literature, music, and he has researched extensively the topics of Istanbul, Greece, Physics, classical history, literature… He is a true polymath, a born lecturer and teacher, and knowledge pours out of every page.

Freely structures the book as an autobiography, and I found the story of his upbringing very touching, as it reflected that of many emigrants from Ireland (but not exclusively) who sailed away searching for a better life elsewhere. History has a way of changing settings and actors but it does indeed repeat itself, as we can see in the continued story of both emigrants and refugees that carries on to the present.

The author doesn’t dwell too much on the difficult circumstances of his childhood and family, lack of money, working as a child and living hand-to-mouth. That was how things were at the time and he was expected to live with it and did the best he could. He went to war when he was only 17 after dropping out of high school, and that was the beginning of a life of travelling. Even in those circumstances he loved books and reading (he had studied with fascination a book about the wonders of the world his grandfather had brought back to Ireland from the Crimean War as a young boy) and he educated himself by reading a catalogue of recommended lectures a military priest gave him whilst traveling to China. Mr Freely is a connector and communicator who made (and I’m sure still makes) friends everywhere he went and was lucky to get and take good advice. He decided to follow some such advice and took advantage of the GI bill; he studied Physics and he did well, as he reflects upon, with surprise, a few times throughout his life. His love for knowledge and his thirst for travelling combined into a lifelong journey and he found a more than willing partner in his wife, Toots.

Although he does not talk in detail about such things as feelings, it’s not difficult to read between the lines and sometimes he says more when he doesn’t elaborate on topics that when he does (his muted comments about his son’s difficulties are an example). His vignettes of early married life and his love for his wife come through loud and clear.

Once the couple move to Istanbul and Dr Freely starts his international teaching career the book becomes a catalogue of trips, not in detail but mostly as itineraries, interspersed with references to his career moves and to his published books. There are brief moments of lyrical descriptions that hint at wonders to be had in the full books, and he ponders upon those moments when they were the only western travellers in some of the locations and they could feel history at its fullest. He quotes the classics and is happy to share the experiences and moments he lived with his friends and collaborators, always giving credit where credit is due. He talks with warmth and affection of the institutions he’s worked in and is always grateful and happy to mention others’ achievements. I could not follow all the itineraries in detail and didn’t always know who everybody was, although it didn’t seem that important. I’m convinced the book would be a great read for those familiar with his work or interested in it that would be able to provide the background and fit all the pieces of the puzzle in, but it would also work well as an introduction to the topic of his books and his life.

There are moments that will feel familiar, easy to connect with and will touch everybody, like his visits to Ireland, back to the old family home, the autobiographical details of life in Ireland and old New York when he was a young man, and the latter part of the book, when his wife becomes ill and dies and he has to carry on the journey alone (not a spoiler as it’s not that kind of story).

I thought I’d share some of his comments towards the end of the book, which I must admit had me in tears (as by then I’d become another exile and vagabond with them). He is talking here about writing this book:

When the book on Homer was finished I began working in earnest on the story of our own odyssey, The Art of Exile, particularly after I looked at a photograph of Toots taken on her 80th birthday, when the sight of her wearing a Byzantine tiara reminded me once again that she was in fact my queen, though I’d had no kingdom to offer her, just a lifelong journey.

Now I have become my own Homer, composing the story of a life perpetually on the move, always an exile…

I’m not sure this is a book for everybody, as it’s full of brief descriptions, names, quotes, dates, and travels, although some parts of it would be enjoyed by most people. Personally, I’d love to go for a walk through Istanbul, Naxos, or anywhere with Dr Freely as a guide, telling me all he knows about the many places he’s visited, and with classical references thrown in too. As I don’t think that’s likely to happen, this book provides a good substitute, and has encouraged me to look into his other books.

And here, I share Dr Feely’s quote of the Odyssey that is perfect for the book.

As you set out for Ithaka

Hope your road is a long one,

full of adventure, full of discovery…

May there be many summer mornings,

when, with what pleasure, what joy,

you enter harbours you’re seeing for the

first time… But don’t hurry the journey,

at all,

Better if it lasts for many years.

So you’re old when you reach the island

… Ithaka gave you the marvellous

journey.

Without her you wouldn’t have set out.

Link:

The book is currently available in hardback copy here (I’m sure it will be published in other formats soon):

https://www.amazon.com/Art-Exile-Vagabond-Life/dp/1784534986/

I read an e-version of the book so I cannot comment on the possible differences between the versions, although being familiar with I. B. Tauris and their work I’m sure it won’t disappoint.

Thanks to I.B. Tauris and John Freely for sharing this journey with us, thanks to you all for reading and please, like, share, comment and CLICK!

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