The Scarlet Pimpernel

Zounds! Zooks! And maybe even a few Egads! Although I may be flashing back to Clarence Day in Life with Father. These exclamations are just one of the many things that make The Scarlet Pimpernel so adorably charming. Who knew that cozy mysteries came in a vintage version? And thank you, Baroness Orczy, for taking only five weeks to transform your well-received play into a novel that reads like it was written in only five weeks.

“This can’t be a vintage cozy mystery,” you protest. “It’s about the Reign of Terror in France.” Yes, well, gentle reader, this version is about the more swashbuckling side of those dark days in the history of France. It features a thinly veiled hero, a beauty in need of rescue, and a villain who rubs his hands in malicious glee all the while laughing, “Bwa-ha-ha-ha!” At least that’s what I heard in my head every time Chauvelin rubbed his hands together. Which he did with annoying frequency. For a more realistic, yet still fictional, rendering of the Reign of Terror, I suggest A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Let’s also not forget to thank the Baroness for failing to consult her thesaurus for alternative adjectives when describing her three main characters. By the end of the novel, if you don’t know that Sir Percy Blakeney is inane, Lady Marguerite Blakeney is the most fêted woman in London, and Chauvelin is sarcastic, then you haven’t been paying attention. Then there is the gorgeous gorgeousness of life for the Blakeneys even though (SPOILER ALERT) they’re going through a bit of marital discord at the moment. In her defense, the Baroness did come from writing plays to novels, and perhaps she forgot that the repetitive adjectives worked better as onstage direction rather than actual words one has to read over and over and over.

Let’s take a closer look at Baroness Orczy’s hero, Marguerite Blakeney. “Wait—Marguerite is the lady in need of rescue. She couldn’t possibly be the hero of this story,” you again protest. Yes, well, since we’re all pretending we don’t know Sir Percy is the Scarlet Pimpernel, you must admit the majority of the story is told from Marguerite’s point of view. This small detail is a pleasant surprise as the reader is treated to a transformation in Marguerite’s character. And then Lady Blakeney ruins the ride by falling back in love with her husband and needing rescue herself thus shining the last few moments of glory on Sir Percy AKA the Scarlet Pimpernel. Way to dissapoint the feminists, Baroness.

I would have thought an inane man who kept an extra set of sumptuous clothing on his yacht into which he could change after performing astounding feats of derring-do to thwart a sarcastic villain would gladly have shared the heroic limelight with his fêted wife. As for Sir Percy’s alternate identity, it’s easy to see why he chose the Scarlet Pimpernel over the Red Ninny or the Crimson Fop. Those last two certainly wouldn’t make a damsel in distress tremble with desire.

The brilliant naming schemes don’t end there, dear reader. The worst is given to Mr. Jellyband whose name is so painfully, so obviously not a real name but rather a representation of his jovial character that I’m a titch surprised we weren’t further inflicted with Sir Manly Gorgeousbod, Lady Beauty Misunderstood, and Baddy Badguy. But really, the novel is so stinking precious than one simply cannot help but laugh aloud. To hate it would be like hating kittens, puppies, and babies.

Wilberforce

Morgan Wilberforce is a boy in trouble in the coming-of-age novel that bears his name, Wilberforce. His story is set in England in the 1920s at a time when the effects of the war are still fresh on everyone’s mind. The reader is thrown into the action along with Morgan as he wakes up from a suicidal tackle during a game of rugby. From there one journeys with him as he navigates life at St. Stephen’s Academy, complicated relationships, and devastating situations made so by Morgan’s involvement. Pay attention to the dark shadow of a clue delivered at the beginning of the novel as well as those tossed throughout the following pages. H. S. Cross handled these details in such a way that the reader never feels as if he/she is constantly trying to catch up.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve read several novels about all-boy schools in England, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised when the seamy underside of life at such a school included what Morgan referred to as ‘mucking about.’ The details were only implied, but the subject almost put me off from finishing the book. I’m glad I stayed with it because the situation plays into the larger issue of what Morgan is truly dealing with.

The last one-third of the novel slowed to a pace that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, could have tanked the whole book. Then Cross broke the rule of introducing a character late in the story (one of several rules she broke brilliantly, so I still complain about the way writing is being taught!), and she added the unexpected layer of—what shall I call it?—religion. And yet, while the Bishop (said late character) represents Anglo-Catholicism, there is nothing religious about his approach to helping ‘sort out’ Morgan Wilberforce. Cross didn’t make the story about religion but rather delivered a heavy dose of compassion, so when Morgan finally experiences a breakthrough, it is genuine. It is also surprisingly swift, occurs at the brink of Morgan’s sanity and the edge of the novel’s conclusion, and is satisfyingly realistic.

One will never see this novel in the inspirational section of any library or bookstore. I’m not sure it should be by virtue of the fact that it doesn’t conform to the type of books usually shelved there. What I loved about Wilberforce is that it didn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life, didn’t glorify them for shock appeal either, but it included an element that undeniably dealt with redemption. I must admit, I didn’t see it coming. For this reason, I’m looking forward to reading more by H. S. Cross.

War and Peace

One of the first things I noticed that people do when they discover you are reading War & Peace is to inquire which version it is. This seems to be a very important question because everyone has a favorite translation, and it would take the cannons of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture to blast them out of the stronghold of their opinion on which version is best. Having only read the Pevear and Volokhonsky (henceforth P & V), I must admit that I am not, at this time, qualified to give an opinion on the superiority of one translation over another. I am, however, going to give my opinion on the novel as a whole.

This was my first experience with Tolstoy, and I went into the reading with certain expectations. Perhaps those expectations, which were rather high, diminished the novel for me. I was excited at the prospect of reading a classic Russian author for the first time (an event which had been put off for over a year due to the relocation of the classic literature book group I attend), and even more thrilled to be reading the P & V translation per the recommendation of the book group facilitator. The P & V, if not the newest then at least among the newest Russian to English translations, had been hailed by one article in particular as trumping all that came before.

I’ve read many articles and blog posts since purchasing my P & V copy, and if they’re not touting the reasons why the translation they’ve put forward is best, they’re at least pointing out the best qualities of most of the versions out there. I’m tempted to read the Garnett, Maude, and Briggs translations, but after that I’ll call it quits. I liked War and Peace, but I did not love it.

Somewhere along the way I assumed that a work written by a Russian author would be marvelously passionate, full of brilliant prose, and replete with vivid description. I expected the author of said work to be akin to a male, Russian Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë. That was not the case.

War and Peace was, as a friend described, an easy, accessible read, and while reading it, my attention remained focused on the story. However, as soon as I set it down to read another, more engaging book, War and Peace became easily forgettable. That did not mean I couldn’t pick it right back up where I left off, but there was no revisiting interesting portions, mulling over well-written passages, or enthusiastically detailing the novel over coffee with a friend. I told only a few people that I was reading the novel and did not comment on it unless a guest happened to notice it on my reading stack. In short, it was often bland to the point of boring.

I laughed aloud at several portions of the story and wondered if Tolstoy was writing a parody of Russian aristocracy. That would have been unexpected and interesting. As I progressed and continued to be underwhelmed, I pondered whether or not P & V’s translation was too literal, and if that was what rendered the story flat and the main characters dull. There was a small reprieve during the middle section where Tolstoy shined a little more light on his characters, but by then it became clear that he could not decide between writing a military history or historical fiction. It appears he chose to do both. The passages did not blend at all. They were patched together haphazardly not unlike when one used a Band-Aid when what he really needed was a sturdy piece of tape. The Band-Aid will hold but not very well.

For this reason, the fictional accounts succumbed to his overbearing and oft-repeated opinion that he alone knew exactly why the war transpired as it did. By the last third of the book, Tolstoy’s belief that more than any French or Russian historian he alone had it right, combined with the war itself, became its own character. As the book neared its conclusion, I gave up any hope that the predictable storylines would end with any satisfaction. In that respect, I was not disappointed.

Any interesting tidbit of writing was bestowed upon the peripheral characters such as Dolokhov, Kuragin, Denisov, Marya Demetrievna, and Mademoiselle Bourienne. Their dialog and actions roused interest in the story, and all too often they were discarded the moment their purpose had been served. For example, I truly thought Pierre would be the character to evoke a response in me. He was, after all, the illegitimate son who inherits everything right out from under those who believe they are more deserving. He should have been the scoundrel, the rogue, the one to upset Natasha and Andrei’s engagement. But no, that was Dolokhov who, although a villain, became the character I loved to hate whereas Pierre bumbled his way through his marriage, the war, and the story in general.

I know there are many people who love War and Peace—who believe it is one of the best works ever written—and to them I say, “God bless you.” I’m truly happy for these people. Unfortunately, many who adore War and Peace cannot say the same when they find out one does not absolutely love it as much as they.

I own two more books by Tolstoy which I do plan on reading. I’ll not allow one mediocre book to entirely sway my opinion against a writer nor will I let it keep me from reading other Russian authors. As with any book I read that has been called a classic, finding out exactly why the book earned this label is always of interest to me. In the case of War and Peace, I wondered if the strength of Tolstoy’s reputation as a writer carried the book into literary prestige.

Although I did not fall in love with War and Peace, I would not discourage anyone from reading it. This review is my opinion, and whether or not you agree with me is irrelevant. What is important is that you decide for yourself which books you will read, and then formulate your own opinion of them.

Mockingbird Calling

As a teenager, there are so many things that one doesn’t appreciate. My ninth grade Honors English teacher assigned the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, as part of our reading for the year, and we didn’t question it. I wondered who this man, Harper Lee, was and what sort of book this dead man had written. While my teacher, Mrs. Kraft, quickly corrected our wrong assumption about Harper Lee’s gender, she didn’t mention that the authoress was still alive. It was a small oversight, and being teenagers, we were either too disinterested or too lazy to care. I ended up loving the book so much that I read it a couple more times throughout my life.

Fast forward to the release of Go Set a Watchman. By then I was writing and seeking publication, and if there is one thing I’ve learned as a writer it’s that I would never want my first draft of anything published for the entire world to read. The idea was horrifying, and since I had heard that Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee’s first draft, I refused to read it in honor of her. Still, the point I made at the beginning of this post didn’t hit home with me.

It wasn’t until I read Charles J. Shields’s Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee that one particular fact become apparent. Harper Lee had still been alive in 1984 when I read her iconic novel for the first time. At least this time I had a better understanding of who she was and how much of herself and her life she had written into her novel.

I’ll provide you with my impressions of Nelle Harper Lee rather than bore you with facts. At first I wasn’t sure I liked this brash person who didn’t seem to recognize or understand boundaries in other people’s lives. In situations where most people would be embarrassed by such behavior, it appeared that Nelle didn’t have the good sense to be ashamed. What I thought of as her complete lack of social skills made me wonder if she was autistic, and I absolutely do not say that as a thoughtless insult. On the contrary, Nelle’s haphazard navigation of life touched my mother’s heart, and I wondered if she had anyone who truly understood her.

Adding to my concern was Nelle’s mother’s mental illness, and I wondered if the lack of maternal guidance toward her late-in-life daughter also affected the formation of Nelle’s personality. Alice Lee, the oldest sibling, and A. C. Lee, Nelle’s father, certainly filled any void in her life. According to Shields’s account, they presented a resilient style of parenting that I don’t believe the sensitive artist within Nelle was strong enough to withstand. Support for her chosen career came reluctantly, and only after her success with To Kill a Mockingbird did they come on board.

Then the pendulum would swing in the other direction, and a soft, caring Nelle appeared. She was still outspoken but also attentive to other people often to her own detriment. Her close friend, Truman Capote, benefited the most from this side of Nelle. He took advantage of her gentle nature when he employed her as his “assistant researchist” during the writing of In Cold Blood. A bare mention that had to be shared with Capote’s lover was all Nelle received for the extensive work she did. Along with Capote badmouthing Nelle on several occasions and his obvious envy of her success, it’s no wonder their relationship became strained.

I believe the pressure to live up to the success of To Kill a Mockingbird overwhelmed Nelle. I also believe that as much as she wanted to be a writer, she only had one novel in her, and this is absolutely fine. She could have been quite happy for years writing articles for newspapers or short stories for magazines, and if the idea for a novel came along, she could have penned it free from the burden of living up to her prior achievement. But the public and her family wanted more. The public wanted another book they could sink their teeth into, and for some reason I never truly understood, her family wanted her back home in Alabama at least six months out of the year. The tug of war on Nelle, both internally and externally, did little to encourage her writing. A second novel never came to light, and after ten years the bloom of her success from To Kill a Mockingbird had faded.

For the remainder of her life, Nelle viciously guarded her novel and characters, not so much as allowing a cookbook named after Calpurnia to be published. She basked in the waning glow of her novel, occasionally enjoying a resurgence of celebrity with anniversaries of the novel or when someone wrote an article about her or her famous book. Otherwise, she led a reclusive life to the degree that no one could ever convince me she wanted or approved the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

So do I have a clearer picture of Harper Lee? Actually, without her memoirs or at least a book of her personal correspondence, I’m left with more questions. I would have loved to speak with her, to wrestle her out of her insecurities, or at least understand where she was coming from. I believe we could have been friends.

– – – – –

The copy of Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee that I read was published prior to Nelle Harper Lee’s death. I do not know how the revised and updated copy reads, or whether it supplies further insight into the authoress or the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Quite frankly, I enjoy the mystique surrounding this simple woman, and I don’t feel as if I need to know more.

Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag!

I had never read Erma Bombeck until a literary agency’s query letter specifications required me to find comparable books. I Googled books about families with a strong humor element, wrote down the titles, and placed holds on them at my local library. I also visited Books-A-Million to find the titles my library didn’t own, and I read the book jacket flaps, the opening paragraphs, and random selections throughout the books. One novel in particular seemed like it was going to be close, but I just didn’t feel a connection with it. The comparison to my novel ended up being slim at best. I never finished reading it.

I went back to the drawing board (Google) and refined my search for comparable books. I wanted truly funny family situations, the kind to which a reader could relate and which would make him or her laugh out loud. What I didn’t want were books that pushed someone’s social, political, or religious agenda or books that praised deep-seated dysfunctions in need of therapy and medication. Whatever I did returned a better selection of titles that weren’t just new books and authors, but many classic humor writers, too.

And I discovered Erma Bombeck. I had heard about Mrs. Bombeck as a kid, and I’ve read snippets of her writing usually on refrigerator magnets or bookmarks. At first I worried that her writing would be considered too old or irrelevant to today’s family, or worse, today’s woman. After reading Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag! I realized that Mrs. Bombeck’s humorous writing is every bit as relevant today as when it was first published.

What appealed to me about Mrs. Bombeck’s writing was that she blended her role as a wife and mother into that of her writing career. She used the years she wasn’t writing for a paycheck to gather material for the times when she could. She made sacrifices without sacrificing her family, and it paid off in fifteen books, a humor column that appeared in nine hundred newspapers throughout the world, and an eleven-year guest appearance on ABC’s Good Morning, America. Mrs. Bombeck held twelve honorary doctorates, was appointed to the President’s Advisory Committee for Women, and was repeatedly named to The World Almanac’s annual list of the twenty five Most Influential Women in America. Pretty impressive for a housewife.

Per Mrs. Bombeck:

Raising a family wasn’t something I put on my resume, but I have to ask myself, would I apply for the same job again?

It was hard work. It was a lot of crud detail. It was steady. Lord, it was steady. But in retrospect, no matter what deeds my life yielded…no matter how many books I had written marched in a row on a library shelf, no matter how many printed words of mine dangled under magnets on refrigerator doors, I had done something rather extraordinary with my life as a mother. For three decades, I had been a matriarch of my own family…bonding them together, waiting for stragglers to grow up, catch up, or make up, mending verbal fences, adding a little glue for cohesion here, patching a few harsh exchanges there, and daily dispensing a potion of love and loyalty to something bigger than all of us.

I cannot tell you how reassured I was to know that Mrs. Bombeck understood the importance of investing in her family. She understood that women aren’t defined by how much they earn or their status in life. She knew that the stay-at-home mother who didn’t make money doing what she did was every bit as important as the woman in the corporate boardroom pulling down millions.

Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag! was a truly satisfying read, and I hope women today will realize that the greatest thing they can do for themselves is to selflessly serve others. The rewards are endless. Don’t believe me? Reread Erma Bombeck’s list of accomplishments above.

Prepare For the Future by Studying the Past

I have never wanted to distance myself from a book as much as I have Anchee Min’s Becoming Madame Mao. I have never wanted a book to end as much as this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction novel documenting the transition of Yunhe to Lan Ping to Madame Mao Jiang Ching. Anchee Min’s bio on the jacket flap states that she “has a personal connection to Madame Mao.” As a young woman, Min was recruited by a talent scout for Madame Mao’s Shanghai Film Studio. I wondered how her close proximity to Madame Mao shaped the story and which parts might have been revealed confidences and which were romanticized imaginings. In either case, there is absolutely nothing about Madame Mao to admire.

The novel initially drew me in with a prologue told in points of view alternating between a third person omniscient narrator and the young woman who would become Madame Mao. The dual storytelling was a refreshing and intelligent approach to revealing the tale as the reader is given an outsider’s view to Madame Mao’s story and then drawn into her perspective complete with emotions and desires, inner details and thoughts. And that is where the good in this book ends.

The woman who became Madame Mao did indeed have a horrible beginning to her life. It marred her existence with overwhelming amounts of insecurity that would haunt her forever. She combatted her fears by throwing herself into her one passion: acting. This allowed her to constantly transform herself into who she needed to be to survive. As heroic as this sounds, Madame Mao never learned grace or forgiveness. Instead, she used China as her stage, cast herself as the leading lady, treated the people of China as mere props, and was nothing more than a lying manipulator who destroyed anyone in her way.

Revenge against people she disliked ended in imprisonment and murder. Actors and politicians who snubbed her, regardless how of long ago the supposed offense took place, found themselves on Madame Mao’s hit list. Jealousy for any woman in a stable marriage, especially if the woman’s husband was close to Mao Tse Tung, poisoned her mind and her actions. She was evil personified, and I cannot feel sorry for her.

The novel has Madame Mao claiming she conducted herself as she did for love. Her twisted version of love was to insert herself in a situation where her affection quickly faded in the face of her true desire to achieve power and rule. Another claim was that she was helpless to act any other way than how she did, and she points the finger back at Mao when she said, “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite.” She only did this to maintain his favor in the hopes of ruling after his death, and I believe that the cowardly act of denying responsibility for her own actions makes her even more despicable.

As troubling as the history of this psychotic, vindictive woman is, what I find more disturbing is the fact that the history appears to be repeating itself in America. And it’s not even our history. The battle for control of media outlets is one such example. The novel has Madame Mao stating “I feel the power of the media. The way it washes and bleaches minds.” All other forms of media were illegal except her operas, ballets, and films which pushed Mao’s Communist agenda.

America hasn’t reached the level where a simple family feud between a child and a step-parent can end in public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, and death, but every day the news and entertainers denounce major political figures based on rumor and imagination. I fear the “get evidence and produce witnesses” order of Madame Mao’s day is not far off.

Another familiar tactic I recognize was when Madame Mao, together with her husband, upended China by gaining control of the students. Their young impressionable minds were subject to the manipulation, and the Maos made no secret of the fact that they intended to get the students on their side with rallies and speeches meant to whip them into a frenzy of action.

Of course, this begs the question of action toward what end? When looking for understanding and clarification, Marshal Tan Zhen-lin asked Mao, “What is the Cultural Revolution if its goal is to abolish order? Why torture the founding fathers of the republic? What’s the point in creating factions in the army? To tear down the country? Make me get it, Chairman.” Mao responded with a tirade about not allowing anyone to stop the Cultural Revolution, fully supporting the Red Guards, and endorsing chaos and violence as a means of achieving some arbitrary goal. The question of what’s the point, what’s the purpose was left unanswered.

The portion of the reign of terror perpetrated by Madame Mao made her an empress ruling on the ashes of China and the Chinese people. She was at the forefront of the destruction from within. Twenty million lost their lives to this madness. Her place beside the likes of Mao, Hitler, and Stalin is forever secured in history.

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes a walk on the darker supernatural side in The Angel’s Game, his second installment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Zafón’s Gothic tale is actually a prequel to his successful first book in the series, The Shadow of the Wind. If you haven’t read the first book, I highly recommend you do as it is still the best in the series in this writer’s opinion.

Still, The Angel’s Game is not to be missed as it returns the reader to Barcelona, Spain, this time in the 1920s, as well as the bookshop Sempere & Sons and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It also plunges the reader back into Zafón’s flamboyant style of storytelling with lots of dark and shadowy nights shrouded in mist.

The novel is the classic “make a deal with the devil” tale where the protagonist, David Martín, accepts an offer from a mysterious publisher to write a book that will present the world with a new religion. In doing so, Martín regains his health and earns an incredible amount of money. Soon, however, Martín discovers that he is not the first person to undertake this offer, and like his most recent predecessor, he fears he is losing his mind to the endeavor.

The Angel’s Game isn’t deeply theological or highly intellectual.  At its heart, it’s just great storytelling. Anyone remotely familiar with the Bible will recognize the references to the angel of light (one of the Adversary’s favorite ways to deceive mankind), the 6.66 pages a day our protagonist must write to achieve his goal (does that one even need explaining?), and the character Andreas Corelli (the name Old Nick chose to use for this sojourn among men) saying he’d been kicked out of his father’s house after a disagreement (which stands to reason when one challenges God for supremacy).

However, there are some questions that arose for me while reading. One of the thoughts on my mind was whether Zafón had written himself and/or his own wishes into the story. Is he speaking through Martín when the protagonist comments on how writers sell their soul for the dream of publication? Is Zafón, a writer of successful pulp fiction like Martín, consumed with the same desire his character is to write something he believes to be more worthy? And when a peripheral character tells Martín he has seen the angel brooch Andreas Corelli wears on Martín’s own lapel, is Zafón intimating that the demons writers struggle with come from within?

Another theme that Zafón floated was God as both good and evil, two halves of the same coin. I found this reinforced at the end of the book when Andreas Corelli, usually dressed in black, appears in white and offers Martín a blessing and a curse neatly packaged as one gift. But Zafón will have to forgive me if I feel no sympathy for the devil when he says, “…for once you will walk in my shoes and will feel what I feel.” Nor do I trouble myself believing the devil would ever admit he’s wrong such as Corelli did.

All this led to my second thought in which I speculated that Zafón was either a disgruntled former member of a particular belief system or he had written under the impression of said belief system. Or maybe he chucked religion all together and just created an intricately woven story sure to keep the reader up all night. Whatever the case me be, The Angel’s Game is a good story. The slightly far-fetched portions are barely noticeable when the book is taken as a whole, there is a slump in pacing near the end of the book, and the ending isn’t quite as satisfying as The Shadow of the Wind, but none of these factors are enough to keep me from pressing on with the series.

After the War by Alice Adams

After the War by Alice Adams is one of those rare books that defy the bad sequel status.  Ms. Adams seamlessly returns to the town of Pinehill and its colorful residents, all the gossip and speculation clashing with reality, fantasies fueled by emotional inner dialog, secret affairs of which everyone is aware, conversations attributed to no one in particular such as one would overhear at social functions, and she serves it up deliciously as if the reader is a neighbor with privileged insight into everyone’s private and public lives.

Ms. Adams addresses a new round of social and political issues through the different characters’ points of view, often having them use words deemed unacceptable in today’s society if not during the era in which the story takes place.  By doing so, she challenges her readers to reflect upon private thoughts and experiences, examine one’s upbringing and prejudices, and form an opinion.

As always, Ms. Adams’s prose is excellent, and she brilliantly breaks the rules of writing when she upsets the delicate balance of life in Pinehill with the unexpected death of a major character one third of the way into the story, draws the most peripheral of characters onto center stage, and begins or picks up storylines late in the novel only to conclude them with a satisfying ending.

After the War is masterful storytelling from a gifted writer gone too soon.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

Have you ever read a book so good that you wanted to rush through it because you couldn’t wait to see how it ended only to stop the last three to five pages before the end because you suspected that it was about to finish on a heartbreaking, bittersweet note?  I have a feeling The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is going to haunt me for some time, but that’s all right because while I’ve read many good books lately, it’s been a while since I had one that stayed with me as this book did.

I suppose the reason this book affected me is that I couldn’t help looking at it from the romantic’s perspective.  The story is quite surreal, not fantasy and not science fiction, but written in such a way that I could completely suspend belief about what took place to the point that the story totally engrossed me.  Not to mention that Thomas Mullen is a natural born storyteller.

Mr. Mullen seamlessly weaves history from the Great Depression and the 1920s and ‘30s into his novel.  He also intersperses the stories with mention of famous gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barker Gang.  One can’t help getting caught up in daring bank robberies, wild police chases, the brokenness of the Hoovervilles, and the tenacity of the G-Men.

But then Mr. Mullen blurs the lines ever so slightly when these gangsters, along with his own fictional Firefly Brothers, earn legions of fans across the country for sticking it to the banks that foreclosed on property of poor, struggling farmers.  True, their craft was an art, but they were also murderers living high on the hog whose charity extended to them first and their families second.  Past that, most of what they did was pure myth.

So how does one separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, and good from evil when the intimidating fingers of governmental control was more than implied in this somewhat prophetic tale?  Factor in the development of what became the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and it was like I read headlines from today regarding the American government and the NSA.  Perhaps we really are doomed to repeat history when we forget it.

And if you think I’m exaggerating the prophetic nature of the story, consider the following passage:

Part of the Bureau’s job, the Director had always explained, was to dictate reality—to investigate reality, fully understand it, and then, under the aegis of Mr. Hoover’s vigilant public persona, explain that reality to a public cowed by the depression and frightened by stories of gangsters and increasing lawlessness.  It was the Bureau’s job to reassure people that these shockingly hard times were merely speed bumps along the shared path to prosperity, and not a sign that the nation was spiraling into anarchy and madness.

I believe today we call that fake news.  What struck me about this passage was that even if J. Edgar Hoover never said these exact words or acted this way, even in 2010 when the novel was published, Mr. Mullen had understanding of where America was headed.  No doubt based on where we had already been.

At first I thought the novel promoted a lack of hope and something to believe in, but with further reading, I realized it toggled between this and hoping against hope to believe in the impossible as a means of survival.  Such amazing insight into the human condition and an unexpected source of inspiration from a novel is rare.  Another pleasant surprise was the concept of forgiveness, for others and for self, subtly entwined into the tale.

Long before I finished reading, I realized I was experiencing what I could only call a Literary Stockholm Syndrome in which I wanted the bad guys to succeed in their struggle against failure (whether real or perceived), to reconnect with their true loves, and escape.  I mentally pleaded with them to find their women and just disappear.  Nothing they were doing would actually work in the end, it was no longer about seeking justice, and they would most likely end up dead.

I’ve mentioned before how I wished an author would have finished a novel on a clearer, more positive note or would consider writing a sequel to undo the heartbreak and let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a happy ending took place (Is It Ever Too Late?).  I mulled these thoughts over again at the end of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.  Until Thomas Mullen tells me otherwise, I’ll wish for the impossible and believe in a favorable outcome.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

I recently read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  If you follow me on Goodreads and you’ve read the book, you might think I’m rather rigid in my assessment of the memoir.  I’ve read other fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Great Depression in America as well as extremely poor people in Ireland, Appalachia, and other such places, and I must say that for a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes did not strike me as exceptional in any way.

I’m not sure why the book is titled as it is when the story is predominantly about McCourt’s experiences as a child.  His parents’ courtship and marriage prior to his arrival was necessary to set the stage for what the entire family would endure due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual abandonment, but again, the bulk of what one reads focuses on young Frank.

The prose is pleasant (riddled with Irish slang, sayings, and swear words galore), but nothing poetic or beautifully descriptive.  Sometimes dialog is properly placed between quotes and employs commas, periods, or question marks where necessary, and other times it’s buried in long paragraphs of run-on sentences.

One saving grace from all the depressing tales McCourt relays is the hilarity of the situations he’s writing about.  The thing is, the humor is derived from circumstances that are simultaneously horrific.  Yet the reader has to laugh because the truth is almost unbelievable.  Sadly, some of these dreadful circumstances include the way adults in the story treat McCourt, his siblings, and friends.

It’s unacceptable when adults express the depth of frustration, prejudice, and ignorance-born hatred toward each other that McCourt conveys, but children should never have to suffer at this level.  Educators, employers, priests, nuns, relatives, and hospital administration inflict verbal and physical damage on par with child abuse.  It’s a wonder any child living in these conditions turned out normal.

Near the end of the book, Angela McCourt finally takes the self-sacrificing initiative to do something for her children’s welfare.  Prior to that she tolerates her alcoholic husband’s actions to the extreme detriment of her family by keeping her abuser front and center in her life.  Perhaps it was the era in which the story takes place, perhaps it’s that divorce still carried the stigma of shame back then, perhaps it’s that Angela suffered from some type of battered-woman syndrome (hers being in the form of neglect beyond all reason), but because she refused to rid their lives of her worthless husband’s presence, they underwent shame to an equal degree anyhow.

There comes a point in the book when, in my opinion, McCourt rushes through years thirteen to nineteen because to tell it in any more detail would read as more of the same depressing ground already covered over and over and over.  Things turn around for young Frank ever so slightly; he hops a boat to America, end of story.

I’d like to say that Angela’s Ashes is one of those books that just shouldn’t be missed, but I can’t.  I’m not sorry I read it, but if asked whether or not it is a worthy read, I’ll probably shrug my shoulders, suggest the reader try it, and make up his or her own mind.

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