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Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde       

Review of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Overview from "This Master Hyde, if he were studied,' thought he, 'must have secrets of his own; black secrets, by the look of him; secrets compared to which poor Jekyll's worst would be like sunshine.'" —The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

When Edward Hyde tramples an innocent girl, two bystanders catch the fellow and force him to pay reparations to the girl's family. A respected lawyer, Utterson, hears this story and begins to unravel the seemingly manic behavior of his best friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and his connection with Hyde. Utterson probes into both Jekyll and his unlikely protégé, increasingly unnerved at each new revelation. In a forerunner of psychological dramas to come, Robert Louis Stevenson uses Hyde to show that we are both repulsed and attracted to the darker side of life, particularly when we can experience it in anonymity.

My Review:

It is strange to think that though I knew the story of Jekyll and Hyde, or thought I knew it anyway, I had never read the book by Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, until I saw this as a Free Friday book by Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t even have told you who had written it though I suspected it was Stevenson. So maybe I did know, somewhere in the back of my mind.

I have always had questions about this story. For example, what ingredients did Dr. Jekyll use to turn himself into Mr. Hyde? Why did he want turn himself into Hyde in the first place? How did he create the alternate name and personality? And finally what kind of man goes to this extreme in the first place?
These were the questions that I had in mind and though I wanted to enjoy the ride like I usually do with novels, I also kept the questions at the back of mind my mind throughout. But would the author answer them to my satisfaction? The answer turned out to be both yes and no.
I understood that the doctor created Hyde to indulge in his darker side and smaller but dark nature that lurked inside of him, hence Mr. Hyde’s small stature. What I didn’t get was why a respected doctor like Jekyll, known for his good nature, felt the end to indulge the dark side at all. Perhaps the answer is that he is not as good as his friends supposed him to be or that in the Victorian Era indulging any dark impulses could get a person into a heap of trouble. But for me that just wasn’t a good enough reason. We are supposed to try to weed this stuff out, not encourage it, if it was done under a different name. It made me like Jekyll less.
As to the ingredients in the potion, some of them were listed though in the end it turns out to be not what we expect or even what Jekyll expects. As they become harder and harder to find, Jekyll risks being stuck in Hyde’s body and facing death at the gallows for one of Hyde’s foul deeds when can’t make his potion anymore.
The alternate name and personality were easy to create owing to the resources at Dr. Jekyll’s disposal.
However I had a hard time understanding why Dr. Jekyll felt the need to do this in the first place as I said earlier, even after I read his explanation at the end. It just rang hollow. This also limited my sympathy for the man. Unlike the experiments of Dr. Frankenstein, Jekyll’s experiment seemed to have no intrinsic value whatsoever.
So while I still find the story interesting, the main character was not likable for me, either as Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.
Contains: some violence

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Paper Fish

Paper Fish 

Review of Paper Fish by Tina De Rosa

Overview from Set in Chicago during the 1940s and 1950s, this novel of Italian American life is populated by hardworking immigrants whose heroism lies in their quiet, sometimes tragic humanity. At the center of the novel is young Carmolina, who is torn between the bonds of the past and the pull of the future—a need for home and a yearning for independence. Carmolina’s own story is interwoven with the stories of her family: the memories and legends of her Grandmother Doria; the courtship tales of her father, a gentle policeman, and her mother, a lonely waitress; and the painful story of Doriana, her beautiful but silent sister. "Understated, lyrical and intensely imagistic, De Rosa’s tale of Italian ghetto life stands out from other immigrant narratives by virtue of its artistry."—Kirkus Reviews

My Review:

Paper Fish is another book that I have wanted to read for a long time. In this case, a very long time. We're talking years. I was so excited when my friend and coworker presented me with this book as a gift, not knowing that I have been trying to find it for years.

I have to admit though then when I started reading; it was something of a letdown. It just wasn't what I was expecting. I couldn't tell you exactly what it was but I know that I was hoping for something less literary (as in literary fiction) and more like Adriana Trigiani's novels, something that was entertaining as well as educational. This was not it.

However, I kept at it. I had read rave reviews of this thing after all and after years of waiting I was determined to finish the thing. After all, it was only one hundred odd pages or so. It shouldn't be difficult, right?

And it wasn't. It did get better. True, it still wasn't what I'd hoped to get but really there were some great lines and the characters were intriguing. As promised on the back cover, this book does not give you stereotypical caricatures of Italian immigrants. These are real people and real people are flawed yet strangely beautiful, in this novel anyway.

 Our story centers mostly on Carmolina, a young third generation, half-Italian, half-Lithuanian girl who grows up in an Italian neighborhood in Chicago during the 40's and 50's. However this story jumps around—a lot—and not just from character to character but we keep jumping back and forth in time. It got to the point that I wasn’t sure where or when we were much of the time and that was the primary reason for my frustration.

The other was that I had trouble figuring out Carmolina’s motivations. What was this story about? I am still not sure I know but I enjoyed it more when I paid more attention to the other characters such as Grandma Doria, Carmolina’s parents, and Doriana, her sister than I did when I focused exclusively on her.

 I am not entirely sure if I should recommend it so I am going to recommend it only for those who like literary fiction and those that are looking for some Italian American characters that are true to life and yet retain elements of fantasy in their stories. I am just not sure that anyone else will have the patience to keep reading and that’s a shame.

 Contains: some language, sexuality, disturbing images

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Aviator's Wife

The Aviator's Wife 

Review of The Aviator's Wife  by Melanie Benjamin

Overview from For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong.

Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements—she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States—Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.

My Review:

I wasn’t sure what to make of this one at first. I mean, I knew about Charles Lindbergh, “Lucky Lindy,” and his flight to Paris in his little Spirit of Saint Louis. But what did I really know about his wife? Almost nothing. I only really remembered that her name was Anne Morrow Lindbergh which is somewhat interesting in and of itself since her maiden name was included as part of her full name. That must have been unusual for that time.

Still what did she really do? This book seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to get an answer to that question and it succeeded. Yes, I know it is fiction but the great thing about Historical Fiction is that it usually doesn’t deviate from the facts too much—that is, person, place, or thing—but instead explores, fictionally, the why and the how. And we get a lot of that in this book.

Anne is not at all what I thought she would be. A shy and awkward girl we first meet her as the second daughter of the recently appointed U.S. ambassador to Mexico. The family all hopes that his success in board room will translate into success in the political arena.

Soon Lucky Lindy enters the picture and seems like an ideal match for Anne’s older sister Elizabeth. But Charles is shy and soon reveals that all he wants is to get away from the press that has been stalking him and continue doing what he loves.

Charles takes her on her first flight and she falls in love instantly, both with him and flying itself. Sure the cockpit is loud and noisy and crazy. Charles is hard to figure out. Yet she feels inexplicably drawn to both.

But then Anne is sent back to the family home to take care of her brother who is not quite right in the head and it seems like a relationship with Charles is out the question. She does manage to fly again at least, in the passenger seat.

Finally the unthinkable happens and Charles shows up at her door with a marriage proposal. Though she hardly knows him, she accepts right away but this is just the beginning of her life adventure and loneliness.

At Charles’ insistence she becomes one of the first female pilots ever. Together they travel the world, leaving their baby behind. I expect that the guilt that Anne feels about leaving her child behind is something that any mother can relate to as she goes off to work leaving her child at daycare except Anne is gone for months. And when her baby is later kidnapped, the guilt nearly kills her. But Anne is angry that Charles seems unaffected by it.

The ups and downs of her life tell a compelling tale that hides beneath her own overlooked accomplishments in favor of her husband’s. Her inner struggle with supporting her husband not only politically but emotionally and being a good mother for her children make for an interesting inside look into what Anne might have been thinking all those years. I think you will agree.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Gondola Maker

The Gondola Maker 
Review of The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelli:

Overview from In 16th-century Venice, the heir to a family boatyard rejects his destiny but is drawn to restore an old gondola with the dream of taking a girl for a ride.

Venice, 1581
Luca Vianello is the heir to the city’s most esteemed gondola-making family. But when an accidental tragedy strikes the boatyard, Luca believes his true calling lies elsewhere. Readers will appreciate the authentic details of gondola craftsmanship along with a captivating tale of artisanal tradition and family bonds set in one of the world’s most magnificent settings: Renaissance Venice.

My Review:

Okay, finally I am back. I hope no one missed me too much. I had hoped to be back last weekend but I was still too tired from my recent adventures.

This week I am excited to be finally reviewing The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelli. I had already read an advanced released copy that she had sent out when she asked for help from her readers for some last minute editing and was anxious to see if anything had changed. Now that I have read it, I am not sure if I am remembering everything correctly since a lot has happened in the few months that have passed since I read it.

Our main character is one Luca Vianello, apprentice gondola maker in his father’s Venetian workshop. The story unfolds as Luca’s first person account so we see it only through his eyes. Fortunately he is an engaging story teller.

There is a bit of foreshadowing with the burning of the gondola that Luca has come to watch at the beginning. It got my attention because it stood in stark contrast to my previous impressions of the Venetian Republic as place of freedom for those who might be free in other Italian domains.

But the gondola-burning hints that perhaps Venice is not as free as I thought. A place where even a boat must pay the price of the crimes committed by its owner cannot be that free. The incident also sets the tone of the story very well.

Luca has a decent life, a chance at being someone of note in his future profession. That all changes one day with the death of his mother when he accidentally sets fire to their workshop. It is an accident, but who will believe him?

Fearing he will be accused of arson or worse, he leaves home and vows to find a way to make it on his own. Yet he cannot bear to leave Venice.

He does well on his own, eventually earning a position of respect as the gondolier for a respected Venetian painter. That is where he first encounters her, the woman who will throw his life out of balance, the unattainable Giuliana Zanchi.

Soon Luca finds himself working for the young girl also and slowly learning her story. Her life too, has been turned upside down. He understands her but can he trust her?

The story is not a conventional one but I didn’t lose interest. The main character is well-drawn and not clichéd in any way. I can’t recall many stories that I have ever read about skilled Venetian craftsmen who have fallen out with their families. And the ending was something of a surprise. It also seems to leave room for a potential sequel. Well, I can hope, anyway.

And although they are details about the art of gondola making, they don’t overwhelm the story. Unlike the author, I am not an art historian, but I don’t get bored.

It is also clear that the author knows Venice very well. I don’t understand how she manages to pull that off but she does and that makes all the more realistic. I just visited there recently and I would be hard pressed to tell you where anything was. It just seemed like a maze of gondolas, tourists, pretty bridges, and water. A beautiful maze but a maze nonetheless.

The only downside to this story for me was the lack of back story that was in the pre-edited copy of the book (at least I think I remember something about it) about the costume maker that Luca visits and how she built the business on her own after her husband left her. I liked that part and now it is gone but I guess it was because it was back story that didn’t relate to the main story. Still I was sad to see it go.

I think though that overall this was a great piece of Historical Fiction that really opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t considered before. I hope that my readers will enjoy it as well.

Contains: mild profanity (but no F bombs thank God) and illusions to prostitution