20. ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’ by Carlo Collodi

Remember when Pinocchio kills Jiminy Cricket with a large wooden mallet? How about the scene where he is swallowed by a sickly asthmatic shark? Of course, you must recall the classic scene where Pinocchio is hung and left for dead by two conniving thieves. If these revelations shock you, then you are not familiar with the original text of the classic children’s book by Italian author Carlo Collodi. Like many, I was raised on the Disney film version of the classic story of the mischievous wooden puppet. After reading the original book, I will never look at Pinocchio the same way again.

PINOCCHIO

Although Disney took several liberties with their version, the basic story is still the same. Pinocchio is carved from a living piece of wood by an elderly carpenter named Gepetto who wants a puppet that can perform and make him some money. Here is a quote from the scene where Gepetto decides on a name:

“What shall I call him?” he said to himself.  “I think I’ll call him PINOCCHIO. This name will make his fortune.  I knew a whole family of Pinocchi once–Pinocchio the father, Pinocchia the mother, and Pinocchi the children– and they were all lucky. The richest of them begged for his living.

There is just as much humor for grownups in Collodi’s text as there are memorable scenes for children. The author attempts to use satire and clever wordplay to convey some serious moral lessons, the strongest being the need for learning. It seems like Collodi placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of being educated. Gepetto sells his only coat in order to buy Pinocchio a spelling book only to have him sell it in order to go see a puppet show in the very next chapter. Pinocchio is constantly tempted away from getting an education by those around him. This culminates in his imprisonment in Funland, where he and his friends transform into jackasses due to their laziness.

Despite his adopted father’s best attempts. Pinocchio would rather have fun than go to school. In fact, the wooden puppet is actual quite annoying and a bit of a brat. He does manage to get into all types of adventures. He is nearly eaten by a fisherman, flies on the back of a pigeon, and gets swallowed by a shark. Pinocchio is actually killed in the middle of the story by two assassins who tried to connive him out of his gold. Imagine if the story had ended there? Well it nearly did, but Collodi was persuaded to continue the adventures.

The second half is just as action packed, but there are some changes. Pinocchio’s journey to becoming a real boy is chronicled here with the help of the blue-haired fairy. She instructs Pinocchio that he cannot achieve his dreams until he straightens up morally. There is some further heartbreak along the way, such as a truly sad scene with his friend Lampwick. Fortunately, we are rewarded with a happy ending for reading about the boy’s struggles.

I enjoyed reading this book because it reminds me of some of the more disturbing tales from the Brothers Grimm. Collodi was clearly inspired by these as several scenes in Pinocchio are very dark and twisted. I can see why Disney had to make the changes they did. There’s plenty of death, maiming, and immoral choices but at the heart of it you can’t help smile at the puppet’s striving to understand what it means to be human.

My version of the book includes a great essay on the history behind the text. It also has the original Italian text on one page with the English translation opposite. The footnotes didn’t add that much to my enjoyment as they mostly focused on why certain words were chosen. I’m selecting this book as my translated classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

“Because when children go from bad to good, they have the power of making things take on a bright new look inside within their families too.”

 

Have you read this book? Please comment below!

 

 

The Many Genres of Louisa May Alcott

I just finished two novels by Louisa May Alcott. Surprisingly, neither one was Little Women. Both A Long Fatal Love Chase and The Inheritance were originally unpublished works until the 1990’s. However, these two novels by the creator of the March family could not be more different from each other. I had never realized just how many voices Alcott possessed, the first one written in the genre of thriller and the second one had many of the tropes of an Austen work. Although neither one would stand as her best work, this reading experience definitely helped further my appreciation of this author.

18. A Long Fatal Love Chase

Two years before the publication of Little Women, Alcott wrote this tale of Gothic suspense in order to save herself from financial hardships. Upon completion, it was rejected by her publishers who deemed it “too sensational.” It remained unpublished until 1995 when it became a posthumous bestseller. While reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that Alcott would be penning those insane suspense thrillers you see on Lifetime. Chase often feels like one of those, albeit with much less sex. Compared to today’s suspense thrillers, this one is actually fairly tame. After finishing this book, I realized that I had quite a bit of fun reading it and couldn’t stop turning the pages until I reached the end.

LFLC

Here is the plot. Rosamond Vivian is a young adult woman stuck living with her cranky grandfather on a remote island off the coast of England. She hates the boredom of it all and dreams of a life of adventure. Her desperation is evident as she states:

“I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.”

Right on cue, a handsome older stranger named Philip Tempest enters her life, and Rosamond is quickly seduced with his promises of love and excitement. The two lovebirds are hastily married and run away together on Philip’s yacht. After settling down in a countryside town in Nice, the young woman feels that all her dreams have come true. Then, Rosamond learns that Philip has a dark secret and may not be so nice a guy after all. As it turns out, their marriage is built on nothing but lies and deceit. After learning the shocking truth, the young woman makes her escape. Philip loves Rosamond in his own twisted way and is not planning to just let her go. Thus, a great chase begins across Europe where Rosamond takes up many different careers and alias to escape her murderous bastard of a husband.

Despite my initial dislike and my eye rolling with the initial chapters, I became quite hooked on this insane love story. Alcott was smart enough to end each chapter on a little cliffhanger, so of course I had to read the next one to see what would happen next. This is a book that is firmly embedded in the tradition of Gothic love stories and suspense thrillers. Alcott does turn this story into something beautiful with its interesting European locations as Rosamond finds herself in one desperate situation after the next with Philip and his criminal servant Baptiste lurking around every corner. Just when you think the heroine has escaped, here comes the bad guy. Talk about not taking no for an answer!

Philip Tempest is a very unlikable character. I often found myself becoming annoyed at how he continued to plague poor Rosamond. As I thought about this story more, I realized that Alcott created a perfect allegory for the abusive relationship. Having known several people in these types of relationships, I understand the difficulty of every truly being free from your abuser. Sadly, I’ve seen several victims continue to go back to their tormentor again and again. Some of them never escape. I recognized this while reading as Rosamond struggles throughout the novel to be free of Philip once and for all. Although she demonstrates both bravery and tenacity, I would often grit my teeth as she would sometimes consider giving in to him. Unfortunately, this is true to life. Alcott manages to balance the darkness of human nature with some truly beautiful writing. Considering the increase in literature relating to abusive relationships, it appears as though Alcott was ahead of her time.

One flaw I found in the book is the lack of strong character development. It can be argued that Alcott demonstrated a strong female lead with the character of Rosamond, but the other characters often fell flat for me. I think the trick is to remember that this was written as a sensational piece of literature, so it’s more about enjoying the ride rather than exploring deeply introspective characters.

With the title being A Long Fatal Love Chase, you can form suspicions regarding how this journey will end. I was actually surprised by the ending and wonder if this was one of the reasons for its rejection. Today’s suspense thrillers wouldn’t have ended the way Alcott’s book did. Love it or hate it, I actually found it quite brave as perhaps it summed up the theme on toxic relationships to which I discussed a moment ago. Let’s move on to a work that isn’t quite as dark.

“He was the first, the only love her life, and in a nature like hers such passions take deep root and die-hard.”

 

19. The Inheritance 

Although I read this one next, The Inheritance was actually written first. In fact, Alcott penned this Victorian sensation novel when she was only 17 years old. Despite not being the best writing ever, I have to remember that I couldn’t have penned anything like this at such a young age. As I mentioned before, Inheritance often reminded my of Jane Austen. There’s romance, a failed attempt by one of the characters at romance, and quite a few comedy of errors. Naturally, everything comes together nicely at the end which would not necessarily be true to life. But hey, that’s one of the reasons I enjoy Austen so I’m fine with it.

INHERITANCE

This story is about Edith Adelon, a poor orphan girl who was taken in years ago by the wealthy Hamilton family. Although the father has long passed away, Edith has served as teacher and companion to the daughter Amy who lives in the home with her brother Arthur, their mother, and cousin Ida. The children are all adults now, and Edith has become quite close to both Amy and Arthur. Edith is loved by everyone because of her charm, virtue, and beauty. However, all is not wonderful as Ida’s jealousy fuels her determination to undo Edith by any means necessary. Edith has a secret of her own as a long lost letter reveals a shocking birthright as well as the inheritance of the books’ title.

Inheritance falls in the vein of the sentimental novel, a work which tends to evoke strong emotions of love and sentiment. I got very tired continuing to read lines about how Edith is “poor” but “virtuous.” We are reminded every few pages about how “good” Edith is despite being “poor.” It got a tad annoying. Don’t expect a lot of deep characterization here, from any of the characters. Even Ida as the villain didn’t really have much in the way of depth. A few dramatic events occur, but they are fairly minor to a work like Alcott’s later Chase. We get our happy ending, teaching us that goodness and virtue triumph over darkness and evil. Then again, these guys never had to deal with Philip Tempest!

This year I’m participating in Back to the Classics challenge. I liked how both of these books showed two very different sides to romance. Chase is a dark twisted tale of love gone wrong, while Inheritance is a Victorian fairy tale story. So I’m placing this review as my entry for the classic romance, representing both its good and bad sides.

“A long night and a happy day had passed. All had been told…”

 

Have you read either of these books? Please comment below.

 

 

 

17. ‘The Bees’ by Laline Paull

I first learned about The Bees from reading a review from a fellow book blogger. The concept sounded really interesting so I was excited to acquire it during a recent book haul.

BEES

This is the first published novel from Laline Paull, and it was nominated for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The protagonist Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, the lowest caste of bees in her hive. Flora quickly discovers that she is unlike the other lower bees. She is born slightly bigger and has abilities that one in her caste normally should not possess. Her curiosity is deemed as a sin in a world where she only needs to know three words. Accept. Obey. Serve. When dangers threaten the hive, Flora’s bravery and strength grant her rights leading to a multitude of adventures including access to the Queen. However, Flora is hiding a dark secret that not only threatens her life in the hive but leads her to question her entire worldview.

I love the detail that Paull used to render this fantasy world. After studying the biology and behavior of bees for several months, she was able to transform that knowledge into a rather detailed science fiction landscape. For example, several passages detail the ways bees communicate, such as through dance and use of their antennae. I feel like I learned a lot of great information behind the science of bees in addition to reading a great work of fiction. There is a very detailed caste system that drives the story, from the lowly sanitation workers to the holy priestesses to the Queen who is viewed as a Goddess. The males have their own special place on the hierarchy and are portrayed as spoiled and obnoxious members of royalty whose only true function to the hive is to service the Queen with offspring. Of course, the male drones are ritualistically slaughtered after their “services” are met, leading into one of the most disturbing scenes in the book!

Flora was an interesting character that constantly questioned the rulings of the hive. Normally, I don’t like the whole “chosen one” plot device in science fiction. I didn’t mind it here though due to how Flora possessed a certain naivety about her being special.

The story itself is quite riveting with a vast multitude of threats endangering the hive. Wasps, spiders, mice, and even human beings are described in frightening detail. It is a testament to Paull’s superb writing that she has transformed a simple beehive into an epic fantasy world that is filled with suspense around every corner. It was refreshing to read a novel in the dystopian vein that is told in a completely different way.

“Then kindly recall that variation is not the same as deformity.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

16. ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story’ by Ned Vizzini

Whenever I get close to finishing a book for review, I like to do a little research on its author. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Ned Vizzini, the brilliant author of It’s Kind of a Funny Story, died almost four years ago from suicide. A heavy sadness now rests on my heart. I gained a lot from reading this book. As a therapist, I understood its difficult subject matter of the ways mental illness impacts our world. As a human being who has dealt with depression himself, I appreciated its sad but life-affirming reflections.

VIZZINI
I really connected with this book as both a mental health therapist and as a human being.

This book is based on the five days that Vizzini stayed in an adult psychiatric hospital. He began writing It’s Kind of a Funny Story the following week. It took him just under one month to complete. This is the story of Craig Gilner who is your typical teenager. Intelligent and possessing a quick wit, he is an ace student who spends his free time chilling with his friends and smoking pot. Driven by his ambition, Craig gets accepted into an exclusive Manhattan high school. The day he receives his admissions letter is the last happy day he remembers. The pressures begin to mount, and soon Craig stops eating and sleeping. His concerned parents help get him started with therapy and medication, but it doesn’t seem to work. After nearly committing suicide, Craig makes the decision to check into a mental hospital. His new roommates are a colorful cast of characters such as a transsexual sex addict, an Egyptian man who refuses to get out of bed, and a girl named Noelle who has scarred her own face with scissors. During his five days in the adult ward, Craig finally confronts the sources of his anxiety.

At first, Craig thinks being in a hospital is a huge mistake. Then, he starts making progress. His appetite returns. He starts sleeping normally again. Separated from all of his outside pressures (which he calls tentacles), Craig is able to find his anchors (his name for coping mechanisms). While participating in crafts, an old passion from childhood is reawakened. Craig remembers how he used to draw maps as a child and realizes that he has a talent for transforming drawings of streets into detailed “brain maps” of those around him. I loved reading about how art helped Craig to reach a level of self-discovery. Craig has some moments of regression, but those only occur when he is in contact with family and friends from the outside who contributed to his anxiety in the first place. Through his newly found strength, Craig finally starts to confront and make peace with those tentacles.

Despite dealing with some serious themes of mental illness and suicide, Vizzini injects a lot of humor in this book. Craig is extremely witty, and there are plenty of funny moments in this novel that made me laugh. It’s also an extremely quick read. Categorized as a young adult novel, it moves at just the right pace. I got through it in just a couple of days. I particularly liked the relationship development between Craig and Noelle. Through her, Craig realizes that the mess in his brain may not be that bad after all. Noelle is blunt and doesn’t hold back. Craig learns the importance of being more open. Although I’m left wondering about their fates after Craig gets out, I’m hopeful that things work out well for the both of them.

I really loved the last two pages of the book as Craig simply lists what he wants to do now that he is free. He knows the depression hasn’t disappeared, but he has managed to make peace with it. There is finally acceptance. Craig declares he wants to live. Just live.

I’m sorry that you are no longer with us Ned Vizzini. Mental illness is a fight. We never truly defeat it. We just learn to live with it through our personal anchors. In that sense, we win. It’s too bad you lost the fight Ned. Your words will carry on. My hope is that these words I type will carry on. Always moving forward. We live.

“People are screwed up in this world. I’d rather be with someone screwed up and open about it than somebody perfect and ready to explode.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!

 

15. ‘Homer’s Odyssey’ by Gwen Cooper

The other night I was frantically looking at my shelves and trying to decide on my next book. My wife kindly suggested that I should read some of her books to review. Of course I immediately complained. “How can I do that? I have too many of my own books to read!” I’m sure my eyes were bulging and my head was spinning like a top. When I pulled away from my books and looked at my wife I could see that I hurt her feelings. I realized at that moment an essential truth that had been the proverbial thorn in an otherwise blissful marriage. While reading has always been an essential part of my life, it was always something that I did privately. Since my wife and I have different tastes in books, there has always been “my shelves” and “her shelves” My sweet and beautiful wife wants to connect with me on every level. Why should the subject of books be any different? One of the reasons I started this little blog was so I could share my love of books with others. Doesn’t it make sense that I share that specific love with the most important person of all?

That’s when I made a monumental decision. I rushed into the bedroom and selected a handful of my wife’s books. My plan is to read and review some of her favorites in between my own books. By doing this, I hope to bring us even closer together through having a discussion on books that have impacted her life. In addition, this will open my eyes to even more new authors. I chose Homer’s Odyssey first due to our shared love of all beings feline. This was a great tribute to a most extraordinary cat who teaches both the power of love and the importance of never accepting limitations.

HOMER
While reading this book, my wife and I worked to bond with our newest cat Zephyr.

Due to an eye infection that would have ended his life, Homer’s eyes had to be surgically removed. Unwanted and alone, his veterinarian searched desperately for someone to adopt him. She found a taker in Gwen Cooper, a young Miami resident who already had two cats. It was love at first sight, and Homer found a mother who would care for him for the rest of his life. Little did Gwen know just how large an impact Homer would have on her own life.

“Nobody can tell you what your potential is.”

Despite being blind, Gwen quickly discovered that Homer was a cat destined for extraordinary things. Showing no fear, the little cat not only acclimated to his surroundings but loved exploring the world around him. Labeled a daredevil, Homer would climb large bookcases with ease and showed an extraordinary ability to catch flies with lightening fast reflexes. When a man broke into Gwen’s apartment late one night, Homer showed the intruder true bravery and managed to chase him away. His capacity for love knew no limits either. Homer relished every morning with its prospects of further possibilities. He loved every moment of his life, and his enthusiasm touched everyone he met.  This blind wonder cat could win anyone over, including Gwen’s future husband who was not originally a lover of the feline species. Several moments of Homer’s Odyssey will definitely warm the coldest of hearts. However, the book has a few tragic moments too.

Shortly after making the difficult decision to relocate to New York, one of the greatest tragedies that has faced mankind happened. On September 11, 2001, the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell from a terrorist attack. For several days, Gwen was separated from her cats not knowing if they were still alive. I think only a pet lover can truly appreciate the lengths Gwen was willing to take in order to get back to her family.

Reading the story of Homer brought to mind the special cat that we lost two years ago. My wife was a child when her family adopted Bishop. Like Gwen’s husband, I didn’t consider myself a cat lover either. Bishop quickly won me over, and I knew I would do anything in the world for the special soul. Losing her was one of the most difficult tragedies my wife and I had to endure. Although other cats have followed, Bishop will hold a special place with us forever. Like Homer, she was a daredevil that had lots of adventures and used up every moment of her nine lives. One life can truly make a difference to someone else, even if that one life isn’t human.

Sadly, Homer is no longer with us. If you would like to learn more about his life or this author, go to this website that talks about his life in addition to some great information on living with a blind cat. Homer was a being who lived his life to the fullest and knew the importance of connecting to others, both cats and human beings. Always appreciate the ones you love because time really does move with the speed of a blind wonder cat.

“Homer taught me that building my life around someone other than myself, making myself responsible for someone else’s life, is one of the most rewarding differences between being a kid and being an adult.”

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!