Tuesday, December 31, 2013

SCARAMOUCHE by Raphael Sabatini and My Back to the Classics 2013 Wrap Up

What if the French Revolution was actually spurred on not solely by the anger and desperation of the masses, but for the love of a noblewoman? That is the swashbuckling, romantic premise of Rafael Sabatini’s historical adventure Scaramouche. When my dear friend Tasha of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Books said that this was one of her favorite books ever, I knew I had the “Classic Adventure” category for the Back to the Classics Challenge nailed – but I didn’t anticipate how much fun it would be. I absolutely loved this book!

Andre-Louis Moreau is a young lawyer of uncertain parentage who has been educated by his godfather, M. de Kecadiou. He is in love with Kecadiou’s niece Aline, although considering that everyone in pre-Revolutionary Brittany believes him to be the bastard child of his godfather, he has no hope of ever marrying her. Andre-Louis is particularly disgusted when an older aristocrat of the worst king, M. de la Tour d’Azyr, asks for Aline’s hand in marriage. When Tour d’Azyr kills Andre-Louis’s young priest friend for his speech against the French establishment, the two men are set against each other in a feud that it seems can only end with the death of one of them.

Andre-Louis naively believes that his knowledge of law will bring Tour d’Azyr to justice. But he is forced to confront for the first time the French system in which privilege is more important than justice. At that point, he puts his powerful ability for rhetoric to work for the cause of reform, although it’s by no means clear whether or not he actually believes in the cause himself, or just wants to make trouble for Tour d’Azyr and his kind. From that point on, Andre-Louis goes from adventure to adventure, first as a roadie for a circus troop, and ultimately its star, Scaramouche. From there he becomes a master swordsman, owner of a fencing academy, and ultimately a politician, always guided by the move that will bring Tour d’Azyr the most misery. In a letter to Tour d’Azyr, Andre-Louis reveals the depths of his hatred:

Had you died, had you been torn limb from limb that night, I should now repine in the thought of your eternal and untroubled slumber. Not in euthanasia, but in torment of mind should the guilty atone. You see, I am not sure that hell hereafter is a certainty, whilst I am quite sure that it can be a certainty in this life; and I desire you to continute to live yet awhile that you may taste something of its bitterness. p. 209

Italian-English Sabatini has a real gift for recreating the sensibility pre-Revolutionary France, and I loved how he peppered the novel with historical characters so seamlessly. Knowing the outcome only increased the sense of doom gathering, like watching the guillotine platform being built. I really don’t want to say anything else, because I’m afraid of giving anything away. You simply have to read it! Truly, you must.

Back to the Classics 2013 Wrap-Up

So that’s my last review of the year, finishing up one of the few challenges I entered – seems fitting. I really enjoyed all of the books for the challenge:

1. 19th century classic: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
2. 20th century classic : Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
3. Classic from the 18th century, or earlier: Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
4. Classic related to the African-American experience: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
5. Adventure classic: Scaramouche by Raphael Sabatini
6. Classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title: Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi

I love the mix of English language and translation, male and female authors and varying time periods that this year’s list represents. My favorite was definitely Their Eyes Were Watching God -- it was an absolute revelation. But it would be difficult to pick a least favorite among the group – I’d recommend any of them. Every author was new to me, which was one thing I hoped to accomplish with this Challenge, and aside from de Laclos (who was apparently a one-hit wonder, literarily) I would definitely read other books by the same authors.

I've finished six titles from my Classics Club list since August, so I am happily ahead of the 10/year pace. Scaramouche, like so many classic titles, was available as a free Kindle download. That means my total for the Classics Club remains at $12.29, or about 2.05 per title! Happy New Year, and Happy Reading, everyone!

Sunday, December 29, 2013


When it came to this year’s Back to the Classics Challenge, the one that really stumped me was the “Animal” category. My immediate thought was to include a classic children’s book in that slot, since kids and animals seem to go together. But it wasn’t as easy as you’d think. I didn’t want to do a re-read, so Charlotte’s Web and Call of the Wild were out. And I didn’t want to read something that was going to make me cry, so forget Old Yeller or Black Beauty. In desperation, I turned to goodreads.com and found an unlikely list: “Best Anthropomorphic Animal Books." (Random, don’t you think? I am beginning to think there’s a goodreads list for everything!) And that’s why I whittled away (sorry I couldn’t resist) a couple of hours with this children’s classic last month.

Those who like me haven’t read Carlo Collodi’s original story of the marionette who comes to life might be surprised at how closely the folks at Disney actually followed the original Pinocchio. There are differences, of course, but the bulk of the plot was the same. As you might expect, the original is way more violent than the Disney version -- Pinocchio manages to kill the conscientious cricket who was later renamed Jiminy by folks at Disney during their first meeting, for example. Strangely, the original is also way preachier than the Disney version, with constant lessons about young boys’ behavior.

I guess the biggest surprise for me was that Pinocchio is a lot less likeable as a character in the original version of the story. He’s no sooner sentient than he’s jeering and rude to poor Gepetto. The innocent quality of the Disney version was entirely lacking. Pinocchio isn’t led off the straight and narrow because of bad company in Collodi’s story; his flaws appear to be innate. I found that such an interesting take on the nature of children. Are they inherently innocent and needing to be protected, or are they inherently bad and needing to be brought to heel?

For example, toward the end of the book, Pinocchio’s bad behavior causes him “donkey fever,” and his kind friend the Marmot has to tell him the sad truth about what has happened to him:

”My dear boy,” said the Marmot, by way of consoling him, “you can do nothing. It is destiny. It is written in the decrees of wisdom that all boys who are lazy, and who take a dislike to books, to schools, and to masters, and who pass their time in amusement, games, and diversions, must end sooner or later by becoming transformed into so many little donkeys.” Kindle location 1265 of 1637

I actually enjoyed reading Collodi’s Pinocchio, but here’s the thing: I’m not sure that the average 21st Century parent would relish reading the original version of this classic to their children. Yes, there is ultimately a happy ending, but that comes through Pinocchio learning the difficult lessons of self-denial and obedience -- and those things seem somehow woefully out of fashion today. Cleverness and individuality and most other values that contemporary children’s book authors focus on are entirely absent in Collodi’s tale. But that may be too bad, because thrift and selflessness are still powerful values for children to emulate. In fact, they may be increasingly important values for the generation of kids who need to deal with problems like global warming and the knowledge gap. Maybe there’s a place for another interpretation of the tale, minus the corporal punishment and violence, but more in keeping with the redemptive nature of work, from Collodi’s perspective?

So that’s the fifth book for the Back to the Classics Challenge, and number 5 on my Classics Club list. And the good news is that I have the last book read, so that review will be coming tomorrow, meaning I will at least finish the one Challenge I joined this year! Pinocchio: The Tale of a Puppet (translated by Alice Carsey) was available as a free Kindle title, so the cost of the challenge after 5 books remains $12.29 -- or about $2.46 per title. Thanks to Sarah Reads Too Much and the Classics Club crew for hosting the 2013 challenge! I'm looking forward to participating in 2014 when it will be hosted by Karen at Books and Chocolate.

Saturday, December 21, 2013


I’m originally from Queens, NY. I’m from a big, Catholic family that still chronicles life events by the parish they took place in. (“Remember when Michael was born? We must have been living in Elmhurst, because he was baptized at St. Bart’s.”) I love food and travel. And for many years my husband and I ran a business together. Little wonder, then, that I loved Adriana Trigiani’s The Supreme Macaroni Company. As usual, I felt like I knew every character in the book.

The novel (the third in Trigiani’s Valentine Trilogy) begins with couture Italian-American shoe designer Valentine Roncalli’s engagement to the older, infinitely handsome Gianluca Vechiarelli, an Italian leather maker. I found it a very satisfying place for an adult romance novel to begin. After all, anyone who’s been married for any length of time knows that’s when the work actually begins. And that’s exactly how it is for Valentine and Gianluca. Once the romantic haze of courtship is done, every couple is faced with making one life out of two separate ones. The Supreme Macaroni Company celebrates the hard work, negotiation and forbearance that make a marriage work – along with a healthy dose of good humor.

One of the core elements of the book is the unexpected culture clash that comes with the marriage of an Italian-American woman to an Italian man. So much of Valentine’s definition of self in the earlier book was wrapped up in her ethnicity. In the US, she’s Italian-American – emphasis on the “Italian” part. But as she spends time with her Italian husband and his extended family – his pregnant daughter and his enigmatic ex-wife, especially – she is forced to redefine her emphasis, becoming increasingly aware of the “American” part of the equation:

During my travels in Italy, the Italian wives seemed practical and a little removed. There appeared in them a resignation to the order and roles established in life as it had been for generations. How was I going to continue to be the woman I was, split between these two cultures, who had little in common when it came to a woman’s ambition and drive? I figured I was in for it. What, I didn’t know. But I loved Gianluca and figured it had to go my way. This is also the hallmark of an American sensibility. Things naturally work out for the best when intention is clear. Or do they? p. 104

The Supreme Macaroni Company is so much more than chic lit, although I have seen it described that way. It continues Trigiani’s ongoing meditation on the vanishing world of fine craftsmanship. It also delves into the economic issues involved in America’s cheaper-is-better, import-driven economy. But it remains a romance at its heart, and I enjoyed almost every page of it. Every page, that is, until the ending, which I found absolutely heartbreaking, especially as the end of a trilogy. I thought it was just too sad a way to finish, undercutting the overall tone of the series, I thought. It’s listed as the last book in a trilogy, but I’m hoping that it also marks the start of another series, because I would really hate to be saying good-bye to Valentine and her family forever.

I read this as part of a TLC Book Tour. I received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. And I honestly loved it! Thanks, as always, for including me on the tour. Please check the other stops on the tour for additional opinions about The Supreme Macaroni Company. Sorry this post is a bit late - the end of the semester combined with Christmas to keep me from the fun stuff!