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Heroic Measures

Heroic Measures

3.5 19
by Jill Ciment

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The basis for the major motion picture 5 Flights Up starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman.

New York City is on high alert—a gasoline truck is “stuck” in the Midtown tunnel and the driver has fled. Through panic and gridlock, Alex and Ruth must transport their beloved old dachshund—whose back legs are suddenly


The basis for the major motion picture 5 Flights Up starring Diane Keaton and Morgan Freeman.

New York City is on high alert—a gasoline truck is “stuck” in the Midtown tunnel and the driver has fled. Through panic and gridlock, Alex and Ruth must transport their beloved old dachshund—whose back legs are suddenly paralyzed—to the animal hospital, using a cutting board as a stretcher. But this is also the weekend when Alex and Ruth must sell the apartment in which they have lived for most of their adult lives. Over the course of forty-eight hours, as the mystery of the missing truck driver terrorizes the city and the dachshund’s life hangs in the balance, the bidding war over their apartment becomes a barometer for collective hope and despair. Told in shifting points of view—Alex’s, Ruth’s, and the little dog’s—Heroic Measures is a moving, deft novel about urban anxiety and the love that deepens over years.

Editorial Reviews

Caitlin Macy
Yet the core of Heroic Measures is the patient, specific laying forth of the lives of this childless septuagenarian couple, these City College graduates with their little dog, their fluorescent light over the kitchen sink, their regular ethnic dinner with friends, their love for Chekhov and, yes, their Viagra­-aided sex life. These quotidian but palpably truthful details add up to a story that doesn’t seem at all unconvincing. If that seems like faint praise, well, this isn’t a novel that goes for a big plot payoff (despite Pamir’s antics) or courts raves with ambitious prose. With this 48-hour portrait of a marriage in which troubles flare only briefly, Ciment seems to be aiming for something lighter and yet more real.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Ciment's spare and surprisingly gripping novel details one long weekend in the life of Ruth and Alex Cohen, an elderly New York couple hoping to sell their East Village apartment of 45 years. Ruth is a retired teacher and Chekhov devotee, and Alex is an artist, currently adding colorful illuminations to the couples' old FBI files. As they ready for an open house, a gas tanker truck gets stuck in the Midtown tunnel, seizing the city with gridlock and fear of a terrorist attack. (In scenes that border on parody, the local news adopts a "Danger in the Tunnel" graphic and runs viewer polls about whether "terrorists take drugs.") Meanwhile, the Cohens' beloved dachshund, Dorothy, falls ill and has to be taken to an uptown animal hospital. As the real estate market swings in response to the news about the tanker, the Cohens wait for news about their dog and confront the reality of leaving their home. Ciment plays the veterinary, real estate and domestic details like elements of a thriller plot, while the couple's love of their dog provides heartrending texture-literature with commercial crossover. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Three days of personal and public disasters form the scene of this latest from Ciment (The Tattoo Artist). Aging couple Ruth and Alex find their elderly dachshund Dorothy half-paralyzed on their kitchen floor and rush her to the animal hospital, only to find Manhattan's Midtown Tunnel blocked by a gasoline tanker abandoned by a suspected terrorist. After going through the ordeal of leaving Dorothy at the hospital for care, they must wake early for their open house, where bargain hunters are in full force, playing the tunnel situation to their advantage. Yet Ruth and Alex are playing the game, too, as they look at a replacement apartment. Ruth, Alex, and Dorothy take turns with the narrative, trying to reconcile their histories and personal tragedies with the media circus surrounding the tanker. The story is touching, with more than a little wry humor aimed at the easily agitated media and the vagaries of real estate in New York. By the end of the first chapter, the reader feels at home with Ruth, Alex, and their little dog.
—Amy Ford

Kirkus Reviews
Three disparate narrative elements-a possible terrorist attack, the real-estate market in New York City, a sick dachshund-somehow cohere into a blackly comic yet tenderly touching novel. Alex and Ruth Cohen have been living in the same co-op apartment for 45 years. Alex is an artist; his current project is turning his wife's FBI file into a manuscript. Ruth, who has put her political past to rest, is a retired teacher with a fondness for Anton Chekhov. Right now, the elderly couple has plenty to worry about. Highest on the list is their beloved dog Dorothy, whose back legs seem to be paralyzed after a seizure. Also, they can no longer handle the five flights of steps to their apartment, so they're looking to sell it and find something more convenient. Perhaps, with the million dollars they've been led to believe the place is worth, they could even move to the Jersey shore or to that island off the coast of North Carolina that Ruth has read about. There are, however, numerous flies in this particular ointment, for something odd is happening in the Midtown Tunnel. A gas truck has jackknifed, and police are quickly evacuating everyone; rumor spreads that it could be a terrorist attack. Alex and Ruth try to follow the news reports that come in fast and furious. Abdul Pamir, the truck driver, carjacks a taxi, then abandons it and takes hostages in a Bed Bath & Beyond. If terrorists are that close, Alex and Ruth's real-estate agent tells them, the apartment could be worth far less than they had hoped. Then there's the state of Dorothy's health . . . Could have been loopy in less deft hands, but Ciment (The Tattoo Artist, 2005, etc.) keeps things lively and edgy throughout.
From the Publisher
“Read [it] for its painterly depictions of a rattled city, its deliciously biting satire of media and real estate madness, its tender knowledge of the creaturely ties that bind.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“If ever there was a book I would nominate for bestseller-dom it’s Heroic Measures.  It’s smart and funny and completely surprising.  I’ve already bought a copy for everyone I know and I suggest you do the same.  I loved every page.” —Ann Patchett

“A brave, generous, nearly perfect novel.” —Los Angeles Times
“A testament to Ciment’s lauded writing style. . . . Heroic Measures will delight.” —The Daily Beast

“It all sounds so ordinary—dogs get sick; people want to move—yet in Ms. Ciment’s delicate hands, these characters become heroic in their small ways.” —Wall Street Journal (a summer reading pick)
“A wry, gentle gem of a novel. . . . [Ciment] paints the world of Alex and Ruth in gentle, exquisite detail. Yet never does their world seem too tiny to be of interest to us. Their efforts to retain some grace as they struggle for life’s most basic desires—shelter and the safety of loved ones—are universal. . . . A lovely read.” —Christian Science Monitor
“It’s funny what books stick in one’s mind . . . with some lasting illumination the writer affords the reader.  I doubt I’ll walk through the East Village again without thinking of [Heroic Measures].” —Caitlin Macy, The New York Times Book Review
“[Heroic Measures] has the faceted perfection and ardent chill of a snowflake. . . . A wonderfully shrewd and delicate book.” —The Boston Globe
“Every once in a while, someone writes a book that, on the surface, is simple and quiet, yet underneath is stirringly beautiful and full of life and love. Jill Ciment's new novel, Heroic Measures, is this kind of book. . . . When you put Heroic Measures down, you feel as if you've spent a lifetime immersed in Jill Ciment's remarkably touching and hopeful world.” —The Globe and Mail

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

it is the hour when the light over the sink, a fluorescent meant for washing dishes, suddenly usurps the fire of the dying sun and the kitchen window becomes a mirror, the moment every evening when Ruth realizes that her resolves are made of straw and Alex senses his age as a transitory chill.

Their sun-flooded, eat-in kitchen is prominently featured in the open house listing their realtor, Lily, is running in The New York Times tomorrow. When Lily first appraised their co-op, a five-flight walk-up in the East Village and suggested the asking price of nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, Ruth felt the number bite her, like a needle, and enter her, like an intoxicating drug. As a child of the Depression, the word millionaire still held a magical spell, Fred Astaire dancing in top hat and tails. But the instant they signed Lily’s contract, the headiness vanished. What were they doing selling their home of forty-five years? She didn’t want to leave the city. They never cared about money before. Where would they go? She and Alex, never mind Dorothy, would be lost anywhere but New York.

Ruth looks across the kitchen table at Alex, seventy-eight years old, his white hair thick as a pelt, his white brows and beard stiff as wire, and envisions him mounting the five flights of stairs, the ample cavities of his eyes alive with determination, taking two steps at a time, his weekly test to prove to himself that he can still do it. But how long can he (or she for that matter) keep it up? With nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, surely they can afford an elevator apartment somewhere in Manhattan.

When Alex first heard the asking price, he, too, felt weakened by the pull of the number’s magnetism. His father, an immigrant shoe salesman, idolized millionaires as he had once revered rabbis in the old country, as men close to God. Ruth had initially called Lily just to see what their options were when the stairs became too much for them. But how could they turn down one million dollars? How could he? He had nothing to leave Ruth but his paintings, a legacy that often struck him as more of a burden than an asset. What will she do with all his artwork, fifty years of productivity, the fallout from his compulsion to keep painting no matter what? If she can’t sell the paintings? If she can’t sell the apartment when the time comes? She’ll end up entombed in his work.

As preoccupied as they are with tomorrow’s open house—Ruth has barely touched her chicken dinner, Alex has eaten most of his, but without pleasure or awareness—they still remember to set aside a few choice pieces for Dorothy.

From the doorway, Dorothy watches Ruth pick up Alex’s plate, scrape his contribution into a bowl, add some morsels of her own, and then set the bowl on the tiled floor between their chairs. At twelve, eating is Dorothy’s last great pleasure. Her dachshund face, mostly snout, is now completely white, whiter even than Alex’s. She is missing two canines and three back molars. At her withers she stands eight inches tall, weighs ten pounds, two ounces. She tries to get up, but nothing happens. Her hind legs have turned to ice, burning ice. Without even knowing that she’s doing it, she relieves herself on the tiles. She only knows that she has done so because of the odor; it smells sour and sick. She lets loose a shrill yelp.

Ruth looks in her direction, blinks for a moment or two, as if Dorothy had roused her from a trance. “Dorothy, have you wet yourself?” she asks, crossing the kitchen and bending over her.

Dorothy searches Ruth’s eyes—mapped in wrinkles, putty-gray and magnified to omnipotence by thick glasses—for instructions. Should she stay put, or try to stand up again? What does Ruth think? If something truly bad had happened to her back half, wouldn’t she see it in Ruth’s stare, smell it on Ruth’s skin? Ruth reeks of fear.

“It’s okay, Dottie, we know you didn’t mean to,” Ruth murmurs. “Alex, something’s terribly wrong with Dorothy.”

Alex joins them on the floor, slips his hand under her belly, another under her chest. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he says, gently lifting her out of her mess. When he sets her down on all fours, she sinks backward again, as if her ice legs had already melted in the fire. She shrieks.

“You’re hurting her,” Ruth says.

“I’m trying to find out what’s wrong. She may have something stuck in her paw.” Leaning closer, Alex examines her back feet. All she can feel, though, is smoldering numbness. “Walk away, Ruth. Pretend you’re leaving. Open the door and call her.”

“You think it’s something in her paw? Dot can be such a little Sarah Bernhardt when she wants to be.” Ruth unlocks the front door, holds up Dorothy’s leash and collar, and waves them enthusiastically. “You want to go for a walk? Come on, Dottie, we’ll go to the falafel stand.”

Dorothy hears her tags rattling for her, but all she can manage is to scoot herself forward, an inch at a time.

“I’m calling the vet,” Ruth says. Still holding the leash and collar, she hurries back into the kitchen. Dorothy fears she’s coming back to yoke her to that lead, but Ruth steps over her and reaches for the phone.

“It’s past six, no one will be there,” Alex says. “Let’s just go straight to the animal hospital.”

Ruth puts down the phone.

“It may be nothing. Remember last year? Dot acted as if she was dying. Seven hundred dollars later we found out she had gas.”

“Should we wait to see if she’s better in the morning?” Ruth asks.

“I don’t think we should wait.”

“Is it safe to move her? Should I get her pillow?”

“It’s too soft. She’ll need more support.”

“It’s her back, isn’t it?”

Alex looks around the kitchen and picks up the cutting board, while Ruth disappears into the bedroom and returns with Dorothy’s tartan blanket and a couple of overcoats. Ruth swaddles Dorothy in the warm wool, while Alex helps her onto the board. Suddenly, whiffs of cheese, cow blood, chicken blood, bacon grease, parsley, peanut butter, and garlic permeate Dorothy’s nostrils, but for once the smells bring her no pleasure.

Slipping their fingers under the board, Alex and Ruth lift her into the air and ferry her out the front door down the hallway. At the precipice of the staircase, Dorothy begins to shake. Even under the best of circumstances, riding safely in Ruth’s big purse or securely buttoned in Alex’s overcoat, she fears the yawning, spiraling stairwell.

“How are we ever going to do this? I hate these stairs,” Ruth says.

“You hold her, I’ll hold the board under her,” Alex says.

Ruth squeezes her with choking compassion, and the three of them start down the steps, Alex first, backward. Dorothy feels her blood swaying within her as Alex struggles to keep the board level. On the first landing, Ruth tightens her grip ever so slightly around Dorothy’s middle, and the pain rages to life again. Dorothy first becomes aware of it as a color: orange. And a shape: sphere. Then the orange sphere explodes and the fire is no longer under her: Dorothy is inside the fire. She now resides in a conflagration so whole and absolute that it is a world unto itself. Nothing from her former existence matters. Her fear of stairs? Flashes away. Her insatiable appetite? Asphyxiates. Even her being caged in a burning body no longer concerns her. All that concerns Dorothy is the little sac of consciousness at the core of the blaze and what she keeps inside that sac: a carbon-hard nugget of trust that Alex and Ruth will know how to help her.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Jill Ciment was born in Montreal, Canada. She is the author of the novels Act of GodThe Tattoo Artist, Teeth of the Dog, and The Law of Falling Bodies; a collection of stories, Small Claims; and a memoir, Half a Life.  She has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts, a NEA Japan Fellowship Prize, two New York State Fellowships for the Arts, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Ciment is a professor at the University of Florida.  She lives in Gainesville, Florida.

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Heroic Measures 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Would not recommend. Very boring story line. Can't believe I read the entire book! Don't waste your time. There are much better reads than this one.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
Heroic Measures is a cute story- until it isn't. Which is to say that maybe that last $10,000 could have been left out as it showed how tedious the story was becoming at the end. And it's not that long of a novel! Those who complain about e-book pricing might wonder why a slim paperback cost a list price of $14.00.
SiobhanMFallon More than 1 year ago
Jill Ciment manages to take a simple tale of an elderly couple and their beloved dog, pit it against a sensational news story of a terrorist hiding out in Manhattan, and somehow the reader cares as much (if not more) about the dachshund than the potential terrorist attack. With subtle statements about everything from the media to fidelity, this small novel reads like a thriller but stays in the mind like the Chekhov stories one of the protagonists reads each night before bed. Beautifully written, witty, scathing- I couldn't put Heroic Measures down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I felt this book was an excellent read. If you love dogs as I do, then this is the book for you.
donnareads911 More than 1 year ago
What a compelling little story of a family... an elderly husband, wife, and their little "wiener dog", Dorothy. I loved the angle at which it was written, from all of their points of view, including Dorothy! It is full of love, naturally, as Dorothy has to be rushed to the hospital, in the midst of a gasoline tanker left in the Midtown Tunnel. Another terrorist attack? It holds the city in its grip, while Alex and Ruth are worried about not only the sale of thier apartment, but getting to Dorothy, battling the gridlock. Moving!
Kay_Fair More than 1 year ago
Heroic Measures, by Jill Ciment is one of those novels that writers love. It reminds us what a true artist of the craft can do in taking a seemingly trivial and peripheral story and somehow make us care. The story centers around an elderly couple in New York City, attempting to sell their apartment amidst the personal crisis of their dachshund's pending surgery, as well as the city-wide crisis of a possible terrorist attack in the Midtown Tunnel. By all logic, this novel should have been dry and spiritless and left the reader feeling completely unsatisfied with its somewhat abrupt ending. However, Jill Ciment makes us care. She makes us involved and invested in this peak into the life of a couple which spans a mere weekend. (Complete review available at www.whatrefuge.blogspot.com)
NanaNN More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book! The story was so well done and beautifully written. I could feel the pain of Ruth and Alex as they coped with the illness of their beloved dog and with the stress of relocating their lives in their senior years. The underlying plot of possible terrorism added to the relevance of our modern day. This is a book I have already recommended as a GREAT READ!
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walkingrock More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the story. Being a huge dog-lover and having a dachshund that is thoroughly spoiled and attached to me, I could relate with the emotions and actions of the characters.
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harstan More than 1 year ago
For forty-five years retired teacher Ruth and artist Alex Cohen have lived in their East Village co-op, but now the elderly couple finds the five flights unbearable and their cherished Dorothy the Dachshund can no longer move her back feet making it that much more difficult for them. Thus they plan to sell the apartment hoping for a million dollars and find a more convenient abode somewhere closer to the ocean perhaps as far south as the Carolinas. As they wait to host an open house, Alex has been adding illustrations to "ancient history FBI files of Ruth. However, the police begin an evacuation when a driver Abdul Pamir loses control of a gas tanker blocking the Midtown tunnel. Residents begin panicking that another 9/11 is happening and the media adds to the fears with the "Danger in the Tunnel" reporting that imply terrorists since the driver is named Abdul. While all this is going down (should say "up"-town) Dorothy becomes ill and needs to see a veterinarian and their realtor says terrorists like Abdul who became frightened of mobs, police, and reporters assaulting him takes hostages, which makes the Cohen pad worth a lot less. HEROIC MEASURES is a super look at an edgy America in which the media and the politicians play up the 9/11 card at any time, which leads to more nervousness as if the country has turned into a collective neurotic perhaps even psychotic mess. The story line reads like a Manhattan thriller in which any moment the Midtown Tunnel will explode and Abdul will kill his hostages yet does so with a profound focus on the three subplots of New York real estate, an aging couple struggling with an ailing canine, and the media-politician marriage of convenience to hyperbolize the truth. Jill Ciment has written a great "domestic" thriller. Harriet Klausner