Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

puddnheadwilson

Pudd’nhead Wilson

Mark Twain (Adult Fiction)

Thomas Paine once said, “Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title.”  Whichever you choose to use—title or nickname—one thing is for certain and that is Mr. David Wilson has got himself a doozy.  David Wilson is a lawyer and a newcomer to Dawson’s Landing, a slaveholding town on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.  Since irony is apparently lost on the good folks of Dawson’s Landing, Mr. Wilson’s first (and last) attempt at humor falls somewhat flat and results in the people thinking their newest citizen is a fool; therefore, it is only reasonable that they give him the equally fitting nickname of “Pudd’nhead”.  Fortunately, what Pudd’nhead lacks in comedy he more than makes up for with fads.  He has a penchant for palmistry and finger marks and is so enamored with the latter, he goes all around town collecting as many as he can from anyone he meets.  Little does he know how useful these marks will prove to be when a case of mistaken identity, a series of robberies, and a brutal murder will ultimately point to the fact that perhaps Pudd’nhead Wilson isn’t such a fool after all.

Pudd’nhead Wilson is part murder mystery, part social commentary, and part psychological study of nature versus nurture.  Combined, it’s a humorous and thought-provoking story of good intentions, broken promises, honor, love, and the ultimate price of sin.  Twain gives us a story of two babies—one free and one slave—who were switched at birth and grow up according to their station in life.  The slave is bound to his master while the other is bound by his uncle’s and society’s expectations.  Twain also delivers one of the most infuriating and insufferable characters ever to grace the written page (honestly, you just want to reach in and give him a good wallop).  Our young Tom, who has been given every privilege imaginable, is crass, spoiled, smug, selfish, ungrateful, untrustworthy, and cowardly.  If ever there was a character truly deserving of a comeuppance, it would be Tom.

Mark Twain was born in the slave state of Missouri and slavery was a central theme in his writings.  However, Pudd’nhead Wilson doesn’t focus so much on slavery as it does on two men and how their lives are ultimately determined by the cradle in which they sleep.  A simple switch and both lives are irrevocably changed forever.  One man is given everything only to squander it away while the other is given nothing, but makes the most of what little life has to offer.  Pudd’nhead Wilson is a commentary on grace versus greed, dignity versus disgrace, and affection versus apathy and Twain delivers it all masterfully.  But of course, Mark Twain would know a thing or two about fools.  After all, it was he who gave us the quote, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”  Oh, if only Pudd’nhead had known.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu

the beautiful things that heaven bears

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears

Dinaw Mengestu (Adult Fiction)

Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled his home and the revolution in Ethiopia for the United States.  He shares an apartment with his uncle, attends college, and pursues the American dream.  Years later, Sepha owns and operates a grocery store in a poor and crime-ridden part of Washington, D.C.  As dilapidated buildings are bought and renovated and later occupied by affluent professionals, the neighborhood begins to experience a rebirth while Sepha experiences his own sense of awakening when he befriends his white neighbor Judith and her biracial daughter.  But as racial tensions rise within the neighborhood, Sepha soon finds that family and stability are once again threatened by forces beyond his control.

Mengestu is a talented writer whose words dance across the page and read like a finely-crafted poem.  When describing Judith’s house, he writes, “Its elaborately tiled roof, flaking like dried skin, was echoed in the shutters that still clung out of stubbornness to the delicately molded windows arched like a pair of cartoon eyes on both sides of the house.”  Unfortunately, the beauty of Mengestu’s prose isn’t enough to overcome an unsympathetic protagonist, as well as a tedious storyline that offers a wonderful description of the streets, sights, and sounds of the District of Columbia, but little else.  Had this novel been a memoir, I would understand and almost excuse the depressing and despondent nature of this book.  But since this is a work of fiction, it’s not clear why Mengestu made Sepha so unlikeable and unrelatable.  For example, Sepha has been in America for 17 years, but has managed to make only two friends (both fellow African immigrants).  Also, this same individual—who can wax Dante, Dickinson, and Dostoevsky with the best of them—is at an utter loss as to why his business is doing so poorly when he keeps inconsistent store hours (he opens the store when the mood strikes him) and stocks expired food on dusty shelves that sit atop dirty floors.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears began like Sepha’s expectations when he came to America: full of hope and promise.  But as Sepha once said to his friend Kenneth, “Once you walk out on your life, it’s difficult to come back to it.”  That was almost the feeling I had with this book.  The constant self-pitying and overabundance of defeatism that can be found on just about every page made it difficult to come back to this book and to Sepha…and he deserves much better than that.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.textbookstar.com

 

 

Lunch at the Piccadilly by Clyde Edgerton

lunch at the piccadilly

Lunch at the Piccadilly

Clyde Edgerton (Adult Fiction)

Carl Turnage is watching his beloved Aunt Lil—the last leaf of his family tree—slowly slip through his fingers.  Seeing that she is no longer safe living alone in her apartment and quite unreliable behind the wheel of her car, Carl sends her to a convalescent home to recuperate after suffering from a fall.  There she joins several other residents including Flora Talbert (who owns four colored housecoats and has an obsession with footwear), Clara Cochran (has a glass eye and a penchant for spewing obscenities), Maudie Lowe (the little woman), Beatrice Satterwhite (owns the “Cadillac” of walkers), and L. Ray Flowers (who is quick with a sermon and always looking for a song).  Despite the laidback atmosphere that Rosehaven Convalescence Center offers, Aunt Lil isn’t ready to take it easy just yet.  She wants adventure and she is bound and determined to find it…one way or another.

Lunch at the Piccadilly clocks in at 238 pages (not counting the Epilogue).  After reading ninety-three percent of the book, it inexplicably fell apart.  It was absolutely agonizing to see this witty and charming book careen so horribly and fatally off course.  The last few pages lacked what the entire book simply overflowed with:  heart and soul.  Edgerton’s novel was a poignant, funny (with a few laugh-out-loud moments), and compassionate book with characters dealing with loss of mobility, loss of independence, and loss of memory.  He gives us several women with an insatiable zest for life, but know that the mortality clock is ticking louder and louder with each passing day.  Why this same passion and fervor failed to carry through until the last page is both confusing and disappointing.  However, the ending wasn’t the only problem.  There was also a salacious backstory that kept resurfacing throughout various points of the story.  This past event between two of Rosehaven’s residents really had no purpose, lent no value to the story, and only managed to introduce some unneeded drama and friction.  Also, L. Ray’s need to break out into lengthy religions sermons broke the momentum of the story and was irritating at best.

It truly was heartbreaking and frustrating to see a book with this much promise and value self-destruct so quickly.  I felt a little duped in the emotional commitment I invested in caring about these sassy, snarky, and spirited seniors who are making the best of what little life they have left.  In the end, I felt as if this book was like one of Rosehaven’s residents who stands steadfastly by the front door, waiting for visiting family or friends that will never come.  No matter how many times I might flip back in the book, looking tirelessly for my sense of closure, I realize that that too will never come.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar by Robert Alexander

the kitchen boy

The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar

Robert Alexander (Adult Fiction)

“My name is Mikhail Semyonov.  No, my real name—the one given to me at birth—was Leonid Sednyov, and I was known as Leonka.  Please forgive my years of lies, but now I tell you the truth.  What I wish to confess is that I was the kitchen boy in the Ipatiev House where the Tsar and Tsarista, Nikolai and Aleksandra, were imprisoned…and I saw them shot.  Trust me, believe me, when I say this: I am the last living witness and I alone know what really happened that awful night…just as I alone know where the bodies of the two missing children are to be found.  You see, I took care of them with my own hands.”

Mikhail (Misha) Semyonov is ninety-four years old.  He’s a man who’s tired of living with the knowledge of what he has caused, what he has seen, and what he has done.  Before he dies, he begins dictating his story into a small black tape recorder that will be given to his granddaughter upon his death.  Misha desires neither understanding nor absolution.  He merely wants the truth to finally be known and perhaps, at last, it will.

It’s one thing to read about the execution of the Romanov family during the late-night/early hours of July 16-17, 1918.  The information gleaned from a history book or online is rather antiseptic—a blurb here, a mention there.  On the contrary, what we get from Robert Alexander is an emotional, personal, and in-depth portrayal of a father, a mother, and their five children.  We get a glimpse of Nikolai Aleksandrovich and Aleksandra Fyodorovna not as Tsar and Tsarista, but as a loving husband and wife and doting parents.  Viewing them in this light makes reading about their horrific and heinous murders all the more gut-wrenching and abhorrent.  They are not merely line items, but flesh and blood who love, hate, fear, and trust.  Because of this humanistic portrayal of the royal family and the two weeks leading up to their execution, we almost forget that this is based on fact, and we futilely hold out hope for a courageous midnight rescue or a perilous, well-planned escape…although history reminds us that neither will happen.

This book held a few surprises for me.  First, the number of secret notes, letters, and diaries that not only survived, but were preserved.  I found this astonishing given the Bolsheviks’ ruthless intent to wholly wipe out the very existence of the Romanovs.  It was also interesting to learn how the Romanovs planned to smuggle their vast family fortune once they acquired liberation (I will not elaborate further should this be new to you as well).  Third, the ending was purely unexpected and opened up a whole new prospect of “What if….”.  Just when you think you’ve reached the end of the story, Alexander gives us one final jolt that depletes the room of oxygen and leaves us wishing that his work of fiction was indeed fact.  What if…

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

 

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar

Sylvia Plath (Adult Fiction)

Esther Greenwood knew something was wrong with her that summer, and it wasn’t just the electrocution of the Rosenbergs or all the non-stop talk surrounding it.  She was supposed to be having the time of her life.  She was in New York and living the high life—a far cry from her 19 years living in a small New England town.  It was the summer of 1953 and what Esther knew for certain was that one of her troubles was Doreen.

Published in 1963, The Bell Jar was poet Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel.  Weeks after her book’s publication, Plath committed suicide at the age of 30.  Given that Plath’s personal struggles with money and depression parallels those of her main character, it is understandable why many view The Bell Jar as being semi-autobiographical.  Although this book deals with grave and bleak issues, Plath’s poetic prowess shines through giving readers a story that is poignant yet subtly lighthearted.  Although Plath’s future as a novelist would never be fully realized, she managed to give us a heroine that epitomized the women of her day.  The feminist movement saw its beginnings in 1963 and Plath put Esther right on the front lines—questioning societal views on conformity, conservatism, femininity, marriage, and family.

Much has changed since the release of The Bell Jar, but the increasing number of individuals diagnosed with depression or anxiety, as well as the rise in suicides, continue to make this novel timely and relevant.  Throughout the story, told in first-person narrative, Esther often describes herself as existing inside a bell jar: continually experiencing isolation and detachment from the outside world, always feeling that she is on display and expected to be more than she is or ever will be, and constantly struggling to be “perfect”.  When Esther learned that the famous novelist, Philomena Guinea, would be willing to pay for her treatment and education, Esther could conjure up neither gratitude nor any amount of relief: “I knew I should be grateful to Mrs. Guinea, only I couldn’t feel a thing.  If Mrs. Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe, or a round-the-world cruise, it wouldn’t have made one scrap of difference to me, because wherever I sat—on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok—I would be sitting under the same bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

Esther Greenwood is a young woman trapped in a life that she is tired of living, yet afraid of leaving.  During her story, I often found myself silently cheering those times when the seal of her bell jar was lifted just enough to allow a bit a fresh air to seep through.  It was during these times that I hoped Esther, and others who suffer under their own bell jar, would be able to momentarily experience a feeling of joy, worth, and hope.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas    

Oscar Hijuelos (Adult Fiction)

It was around Christmas when a young foundling named Edward was given a home, a family, and a last name.  His adoptive father, Mr. Ives Senior (a foundling himself), managed a printing plant and gave his new son two brothers and a sister, provided him with a good amount of encouragement, and—most importantly—taught him how to pray.  While growing up, Edward basked in the cultural richness that surrounded him in New York during the 20s and 30s.  By the 1950s, his creativity landed him in a Madison Avenue ad agency where he worked, thrived, and would eventually retire.  His simple and humble life would involve marriage, children, delight and despair and through it all, Edward will come to realize that the life he imagined for himself is very different from the life that he’s been given.

Oscar Hijuelos delivers a beautifully written novel that is vividly detailed and rich in historical insights and context, yet I found myself disappointed and wishing that I had enjoyed this book more.  First, it was difficult connecting with the main character.  Hijuelos often interjects various characters’ backstories throughout the book.  This was helpful in creating history and perspective, but the constant interruptions ultimately sacrificed intimacy for insight and greatly hampered the flow of the story, which leads to the second point.  It was extremely challenging to stay immersed in the story.  Rather than focus on a central theme, this book read more like a series of random thoughts, insights, and memories.  Hijuelos simply went off on one tangent too many and the book becomes a regrettable product of information overload.

This book mainly centers on New York and spans over several decades.  In that respect, it was interesting to see a city in constant transformation and evolution during the cultural, political, and social movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  I also appreciated the spiritual issues that Hijuelos covered without being overtly religious.  We see Edward’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his faith and the eventual effect it has on his physical and mental health.  But through life’s tragedies and triumphs, Mr. Edward Ives remains a sentimental, kind, and honorable man, father, husband, and friend who realizes that Christmas isn’t his story, but it’s His story—the babe born in a manger who would die on a cross.  Although Edward often finds himself grappling with a life full of uncertainty and anguish, through his faith and belief, Mr. Ives finds peace in knowing that his afterlife is secured and in good hands.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Ives.

Rating: 3/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

 

Mr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva

All during the month of December, we’re reviewing books that celebrate the season.  Enjoy!

Mr Dickens and His Carol

Mr. Dickens and His Carol    

Samantha Silva (Adult Fiction)

Throughout history, authors have credited some of their most famous works to muses: Dante had Beatrice Portinari; F. Scott Fitzgerald had his wife, Zelda Sayre; and Charles Dickens has a poor seamstress by the name of Eleanor Lovejoy.

Dickens leads an abundantly blessed and expensive lifestyle, and between his growing household, numerous philanthropic endeavors, and covering the debts of relatives, the coffers are quickly running low.  Despite past successes, Dickens’ newest book is selling poorly and the fast-approaching Christmas holiday is proving to be not so merry or bright.  Threatening to withhold future pay, his publisher insists Dickens write a “Christmas book” in just a matter of weeks.  Overwhelmed, under pressure, and fresh out of ideas, it’s enough to make even the great Boz Dickens say, “Bah, humbug.”

Weaving bits of facts with threads of fancy, Samantha Silva gives readers a wonderful behind-the-scenes look into one of the world’s most beloved Christmas tales.  The origins of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim are all so plausible, that you forget this is a work of fiction and instead allow yourself to be dropped into this charming story like a cinnamon stick into a bowl of wassail punch.  As you read, you can begin to imagine and appreciate the mounting pressures and expectations placed upon a man so highly heralded yet so hopelessly human.  As Scrooge was cursed with malevolence, Dickens was equally cursed with benevolence and when life proved to be too much, he sought serenity, solitude, and anonymity.  Silva tells us that Dickens dabbled in magic and, at one point in her story, he noted that behind every illusion, fiction, and lie, was our great desire to believe.  This leads us to reconsider the idea that perhaps even a character as detestable as Ebenezer Scrooge wanted desperately to believe in something or someone but simply lacked the energy or the will to do so.  Like his creator, perhaps Ebenezer Scrooge was a man eventually beaten down by the burdens of life.

Near the end of the book, Dickens is in his darkest hour and Eleanor attempts to remind him about the importance of his books and what Christmas is truly all about: “And the colder it was, the nearer we were to each other, and to the truth of Christmas.  The truth of your books…That despite what is cold and dark in the world, perhaps it is a loving place after all.”  It’s easy to see why Silva’s book is more fiction than fact, for with words like these, a muse like Eleanor Lovejoy would indeed be difficult to find…even by the great Charles Dickens.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com