The Nesting Has Loose Twigs, but Intrigues

The Nesting: A Novel (September 2020)
By C. J. Cooke
Berkley/Penguin, 368 pages

Folklore is tricky. Why do we tell fanciful stories? For instance, are monsters real or imagined? Metaphors? Jungian archetypes? Psychological projections? What about pantheistic religion? Are there nature spirits? Is nature sentient? Can it seek revenge?

These questions come into play in C. J. Cooke’s The Nesting. Its protagonist is down-on-her-luck Alexi Ellis, whose addict mother stuffed her daughter into various foster homes, each one increasingly worse. At one point, Alexi tried to kill herself. Now 28, she’s still a mess–especially after she’s left homeless when her boyfriend has had enough. Opportunity comes in an unexpected fashion. On a train, she overhears a phone call in which a woman tells a friend she’s abandoning a potential nanny job in Norway. Moments after hanging up, she asks Alexi if she will watch her laptop for a moment. Just enough time for Alexi to look at the job for which she is withdrawing and to scan her resumé. In a unique twist on identity theft, Alexi becomes Sophie Hallerton and applies for the job.

When you’ve been exposed to manipulative people, you learn some tricks. Alexi-as-Sophie has impressive credentials and aces her phone interview. Can she cook vegan? Of course! Can she teach using Montessori methods? She’s all about Montessori. She hasn’t the faintest idea about either, but, hey, that’s what the internet is for. Per the resumé, in her ten years of nannying she’s handled it all. Her future employer Tom Faraday, an English architect, is impressed; Alexi/Sophie makes her way to London and is then on to Norway to care for Coco, a toddler, and her precocious sister Gaia. There’s serious healing in need, as their mother Aurelia has recently committed suicide. Tom is drowning his grief in work. He is obsessed with building the dream house he and Aurelia planned on a clifftop piece land overlooking the fjord where she died. Tom is joined by his business partner Clive and his interior designer girlfriend Derry, but the only other resident is housekeeper Maren, who never seems to do any domestic tasks.

Sophie/Alexi gets on with the children so well that they crack her pouty, angry exterior, but the situation is more than weird. She learns that the first house was near completion but washed away. The old house on the property where they temporarily live is one in which things goes bump in the night; Gaia reports seeing elk tracks and a “Sad Lady” in the house on occasion and Sophie also imagines seeing a terrifying figure. Outside, strange phenomena take place.

Cooke’s novel is arranged in “then” chapters in which Aurelia is the narrator, and “now” in which Sophie, the children, Tom, Clive, Derry, Maren, and several supporting characters interact. It appears as if things began to go wrong when Tom diverted a river and, as Aurelia saw it, nature fought back. Much of the work crew from Tom’s money-hemorrhaging project quit because they are creeped out. There is talk of a vengeful nøkk, a legendary shapeshifting water sprite. In folklore, a nøkk–also called a neck, nix, or nokken–is usually just mischievous, but sometimes turns deadly and preys on pregnant women and unbaptized children. Is a nøkk seeking to punish Tom, who allegedly desires to build and live in absolute harmony with nature, but cut down a tree and tampered with an ancient river? Or are we reading about people losing their minds in a place too far from civilization for comfort? Is this a thriller dressed in bunad or a tale of the supernatural? Or perhaps a story in which one deception is piled upon other deceptions?

The Nesting draws us in, which is a good thing as it’s a bit clunky at first and, to be honest, I nearly bailed. It eventually becomes an unsettling page-turner, in good and bad ways. Cooke does a nice job with questions of identity. (Sophie/Alexi isn’t the only person who isn’t quite who she pretends to be.) She also deftly plays off of various meanings of the book title and makes you ponder which is the nesting. On the other hand, there are definite plot holes, including a rather large one involving a find in the cliff that goes nowhere. Cooke builds suspense well, but not entirely believably, and her slow simmer stands in marked contrast to resolution that comes so fast that it seems forced. On a personal note, I think she treads onto essentialist turf when she asks us to believe that someone of Alexi’s background is instantly transformed by proxy parenthood. The Nesting is certainly worth reading, but be forewarned that parts of it fail to fledge.

Rob Weir


Ramen Heads: Humble Noodles as You've Never Imagined Them

Ramen Heads (2017)
Directed by Koki Shigeno
Gunpowder and sky, 94 minutes, PG-13
In Japanese with subtitles

If your take on ramen is a quarter for a pack for dried noodles and a salty yellowish lump alleged to be chicken flavoring, you are badly misinformed. In Japan, ramen is serious, even gourmet, food. How serious? If you wanted to slurp–and that’s the only socially accepted way of consuming–a bowl of ramen at Osamu Tomita’s 10-seat ramen restaurant in Chiba prefecture, plan to queue at 6 am just for the right to punch your name into a machine. Stand quietly and hope that you can get a table time before all the reservations are gone. Watch as the unsuccessful contemplate hari-kari. (The restaurant is only open from 11am-5 pm.)

Ramen Heads is a fascinating, though uneven, documentary that peers into Japan’s ramen cultures. Notice I used the plural. Analogous to its Italian cousin pasta, ramen can be prepared in a seemingly infinite number of ways and in settings as humble as a Tokyo marketplace stall or as upscale as fine restaurant. The number of things that end up in ramen broth stagger the imagination and a few might make you queasy. Ramen Heads puts its focus on Osamu, and there are reasons why his shop is harder to get into than Harvard. We watch as he arises well before sunrise to make his way to the wholesale food market, where he purchases flours for his noodles and ingredients for the broth. The latter includes things such a pig heads, whole chickens, and bones–and he’s pickier about bones than most people are about their partners. Broth ingredients will simmer in caldrons for three days before he uses them, and only then after being combined with liquid from two other pots, one of which is leftover broth from the day before. He measures nothing and can tell by color and smell if the broth is correct.

If this sounds as if Osamu is obsessive, he is. He has a family, but ramen is his life and has been since he was an aimless youth who first wandered into the kitchen of legendary ramen chef Kuzuo Yamagishi. Osamu became a prize-winning chef in his own right and his perfectionism extends to making employees who do something wrong to take a time out and stand outside in shame as if they were naughty five-year-olds. Aside from an odd affectation of dressing like he’s part of a motorcycle gang, Osamu seems to have no other hobbies. He even takes his family to ramen restaurants when they dine out. I doubt his kids have ever been inside a MacDonald’s. 

The film has three parts, a look into how Osamu does ramen, a quick survey of ramen cultures elsewhere in Japan, and finally preparations for Osamu’s 10th year in business anniversary fete. The middle part of the film gives a sense of how Japanese people share Osamu’s obsession with ramen in all of its guises, but is marred by some rather cheesy animation that could have been jettisoned in favor of a deeper look at humbler shops. The 10th anniversary bash involves a collaboration between Osamu; Shota Iita, who has the top-rated shop in a different district; and Yuki Anisha, the first ramen chef awarded a Michelin star. The three men have very different styles, but work together as teammates rather than rivals.

Director Koki Shigeno had access to Osamu for 15 months. His approach is sometimes as much anthropological than biographical. This occasionally results in a drawback that’s more glaring than the dumb animation. Individuals in the film, especially Osamu, have flat affects. It’s as if the only warmth is the steam rising from the stovetops. One hopes, for instance, that Osamu has relations with his family and friends that go beyond the business-like exterior on display in the film. Perhaps the director simply wished to focus on obsession and the quality of preparation rather than emotions.

There is arguing results, though; Osamu’s shop has been voted Japan’s best ramen restaurant for four consecutive years. Oddly enough, he managed this without ever resorting to a 25-cent pack of dried noodles and a lump of yellowish whatever.

Rob Weir     


Simon the Fiddler Saws Too Many Sour Notes

Simon the Fiddler (2020)

By Paulette Jiles

HarperCollins, 352 pages.




Paulette Jiles’ previous novel, News of the World thoroughly enchanted me, as I followed the peripatetic Captain Kidd around the West as he old newspaper stories to barely literate settlers in the American West. Simon the Fiddler is also about a sojourner, a young tunesmith who makes his way across Texas at the end of and immediately after the Civil War.


Simon the Fiddler has many elements I should have loved, not the least of which is Simon’s love of music. Yet, I barely finished it and found it as tonally flat as parched prairie land. The central figure is Paducah, Kentucky-bred Simon Boudlin, whose weapon of choice is a Markneukirchen violin, also known as a German Cremona. They hale from a Saxony village where quality stringed instruments have been made since the 1700s and today sell for as much as $6,000. In other words, it was quite a big deal for a young man such as Simon to have one of these and carry it around the South through the Civil War and into Texas in its waning days. It is, in fact, one of many elements in the books that straddle the improbable/impossible line.


What Jiles does best in her new novel is capture the craziness that prevailed as the Civil War “ended.” I placed ended in quotation marks for a reason. Glib history often labels Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, as the end of the war. Do I need to tell you that wars are born from discontent, not reason? Or that they are messy and seldom switch on and off at the drop of a Kentucky slouch hat–Simon’s sartorial head covering? The war continued in numerous places for weeks after Appomattox and the final battle of the war did not take place until May 12, 1865, when a group of Confederates routed Union troops at the Battle of Palmito Ranch, where they declared victory and surrendered on the same day!


Our hero, Simon, reluctantly took part in that battle. Although he was 23, his pale complexion and boyish looks allowed him to pass for 15, thus too young to fight. Plus, in a time of war, good music and a demon fiddler were rare commodities to be protected. Simon might have pulled off his subterfuge, had not his hot temper lured him into a bar fight that made him look like prime soldier material. He entered the Confederate army, saw one battle, and absconded without either an official discharge–he entered the Confederacy under a false name–nor identity papers to pass freely in occupied Texas. How did he manage? More war madness. Texas didn’t officially surrender until August 20, 1866, and even then, there were parts that held on. There was no state government, so who was in charge? Good question!


Jiles does a fine job of thrusting us into a world that was more like the lawless Wild West than subsequent myths of said place. We follow Simon as he makes his way from Victoria, Texas, to Galveston–138 tough miles. He assembles a band consisting of tin whistle player Damon, Tejano guitarist Doroteo, and bodhran thumper Patrick. He also meets Irish immigrant Doris Mary Dillon and is instantly smitten, though she is meticulous to his raggedness and culturally polished in ways that extend beyond Simon’s one refined trait: musicianship. Dark-haired Doris is also indentured to the tyrannical Colonel Webb for three years. We follow Simon from yellow-fevered Galveston to muddy and heartless Houston and onto San Antonio, more than 400 miles altogether and most of it on foot. His pursuits are to play music, acquire land, liberate Doris from Webb, and win her hand. Along the way Simon has adventures and squirms out of more tight holes than a fat rattlesnake.


In essence, Jiles gives us an adult male version of the perils of Paulette. I adore music and am very familiar with many of the tunes Simon rosined his bow to play, but it’s hard to convey the feel on the page. Jiles–a whistle player herself–over indulges in music scenes that should have flavored rather than saturated her prose. The romance was quite conventional, which one would not have anticipated between two unorthodox figures, and the book’s cliffhanger resolution defied reason.


I found myself wishing that Jiles had simply written a small essay on post-Civil War anarchy in Gulf and central Texas and dispensed with–if I might–the fiction of fiction. Simon the Fiddler simply didn’t strike enough realistic chords.


Rob Weir