Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Jerome Charyn - The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson - Giveaway & Review

There exists a fascination with Emily Dickinson. A genius in a tiny bedroom scribbling poems that would become legendary. A mythological recluse writing about life, but not participating in it. Is it possible to tell a compelling story about an eccentric living in the recesses of her mind? Jerome Charyn draws out different aspects of her personality by peopling her life with his created characters. The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson reads more like fiction than biography. While dutifully researched, the known facts about the "Belle of Amherst" are intermingled with the author's interpretation regarding her poetic inspiration.

Charyn introduces Zilpah Marsh as Emily's doppelganger. Zilpah is a scholarship student/maid at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary while Emily is the well-to-do daughter of the "Earl of Amherst." Zilpah has an affair with the school's handyman while Emily is left pining for his love. Zilpah is the favored pupil of their literary schoolmistress, but it is Emily who achieves poetic greatness. When Zilpah is hired as the Dickinson's maid, she quickly forges a lasting bond with Emily's father - something Emily struggles throughout her life to obtain. Yet it is Zilpah's highly educated mind that prevents her from accepting her low station in life. Her inability to cope lands her in an insane asylum. Emily feels Zilpah's mental breakdown, under similar circumstances, could have been her own.

Despite the heated passion of her verse, Emily Dickinson is generally thought of as an old maid. Shattering this stereotype, Charyn fleshes out her relationships with the opposite sex. She receives Valentines and marriage proposals. She suffers a lifelong infatuation for Zilpah's Holyoke handyman. She wants to run away with an alcoholic card shark. She sits on a judge's lap. She seeks love in an underground rum establishment. She treasures a flea-infested blanket from a wanted criminal. She is able to write about romance not as a passive spectator but as an active participant. However, despite her adventures of the heart, she remains an unmarried virgin.

Charyn portrays Emily's father as keeping her in a state of perpetual adolescence. He wants her to remain dependent on him, and he remains the most important man in Emily's life. While in a dream-like state, she even imagines her father as the perfect suitor. It is unclear if their relationship revolves around an Electra complex or if Emily simply regards her self-worth by how she appears in his eyes. After placing samples of her work under his bedroom door, it takes years for him to respond. While constantly seeking his approval, she views him as a type of savior. When wandering the streets of Boston, she stumbles across armed vigilantes pursuing Union deserters. In this chaos-induced scene, it is her father who magically comes to her rescue.

Emily suffers throughout her life with low self-esteem. Pale, freckled and red-haired, her timid voice is barely audible. When her eyesight starts to fail, she wears dark-colored spectacles to shield her eyes from light. These glasses add to the oddity of her appearance, but stimulate her creative impulses. While wearing them she is instructed to refrain from writing, but that prohibition is quickly ignored.

Charyn shines when verbalizing Emily's talent. She is a "kicking kangaroo" as the words come tumbling out. Her verses are "feathers" that require careful pruning. Inspiration is the "lightning" that illuminates her mind. While no doubt enhanced by her formal education, her poetry springs from a natural talent. To this day, it remains a stunning achievement in American literature.

Overall, Emily's "secret life" exists in the creative realm of Charyn's imagination.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn is available for $24.95 at Amazon.com and at JeromeCharyn.com.

A complimentary review copy was provided by New York Journal of Books.

Congratulations to our winner: Cynthia Rafferty!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dave Wilkinson - The Aspirant - Giveaway & Review

A lobster isn't the most likely character for a children's book. Yet Dave Wilkinson creates a modern-day fable based on the life cycle of the crustacean in The Aspirant. The tale centers around Simon and his quest to reach the surface via a lobster trap. It's not until he meets old-timer Harold that he begins to question his ultimate desire. The moral of the story is a lesson about the danger of blind faith. The importance of an individual searching for the truth is emphasized over passively accepting what is believed to be common knowledge. A mob mentality leads to a life centered around a single motivation. In the end, the idea of living a more simple, authentic life is abandoned.

The main terms in the book are based on a vocabulary created by Wilkinson. A one-page glossary explains key words such as unfoldment (the time when a lobster sheds its shell), manna (lobster bait) and gobbler (human being). This may be confusing for a younger reader who is used to stories told in a literal rather than a figurative style. The lack of interior illustrations also makes The Aspirant a better choice for a tween reader with a more focused attention span. The book is best experienced in a group setting where the symbolism can be explained and expanded upon through interactive activities and discussion sessions.

Experiencing marine life through the eyes of a lobster is a fascinating look at an underwater world. The creativity of Wilkinson's narrative is extraordinary with its fresh approach to a genre dating back to Aesop. He effectively overturns long-held assumptions. Shouldn't a lobster fear a trap? Wouldn't the surface be the last place a lobster would want to go? Why would a lobster aspire to be eaten? Their contradictory behavior revolves around a lack of credible information. The handing down of false presumptions puts the lobster on a crash course for extinction.

Their saving grace comes in the form of human children who are not yet corrupted by the all-consuming drive for financial gain. Their hearts remain open to the forces of peace and love. As Harold recounts to Simon his rescue from the auction block, it becomes apparent that it wouldn't have happened without the heroic actions of a fourth-grade class. Their courage to stand up for their beliefs allow Harold to return to the deep with his new-found knowledge of the surface. Finally, the lobsters have access to the truth.

Overall, the propagation of fiction for fact is not a worthwhile aspiration.

The Aspirant by Dave Wilkinson is available for $12.99 at Amazon.com and at TheAspirant-Novella.blogspot.com.

A complimentary review copy was provided by Dave Wilkinson.

Congratulations to our winner: Greyz!

Monday, October 11, 2010

April Lindner - Jane - Giveaway & Review

The Boss meets Bronte in April Lindner's remake of the classic Victorian novel, Jane Eyre. Re-imagined for 2010, the action shifts to America where a college student turned nanny is hired by an agency for a rock n' roll celebrity client. Lindner admits that the premise for Jane is based on her fascination with Bruce Springsteen as well as the numerous modern versions of Jane Austen's works such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. While literary purists might not appreciate a pop culture retelling, Lindner's love for Bronte's immortal heroine is apparent in this teen-friendly edition. Her take falls more in line with Clueless as an homage to Austen's Emma and Easy A representing Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. The book is for the texting, gum-chewing, iPod demographic, yet still holds an appeal for an audience familiar with the original.

Taking a page from The Nanny Diaries, Jane unsteadily begins in the waiting room of an au pair agency. Having just lost her parents in a car accident, Jane is forced to drop out of college and seek employment. She winds up on the gated estate of Nico Rathburn, a world famous musician on the verge of a major comeback. She is hired to care for his preschool-aged daughter, Maddy. The book finally gets going on page 44 with Nico's first bits of dialogue with Jane. Nico initiates most of the pair's verbal sparring throughout the novel, but it is more in a I'm-so-busy-tell-me-what-you-want kind of way rather than the fiery debates on morality by the original Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre.

Bruce Springsteen is an interesting choice as a model for the current day Mr. Rochester, vis a vis Nico. Even today, it quite scandalous to think of a character - having reached his prime in the 1980s - taking up with a 19-year-old girl. Celebrity is depicted as the American counterpart to British nobility. Yet Nico is a self-made man, who did not inherit his wealth. Through drug addiction, infidelity and scandal, he is battling back to reunite his band for a world tour in order to sustain the lifestyle he has grown accustomed to. Despite his blue collar roots and current lavish lifestyle, he has the soul of an artist fulfilled in his music. He is not as adrift as Mr. Rochester, lost without a cause or a purpose. He is the head of a mini-empire which depends upon his success to meet its needs.

The recent PBS Masterpiece Classics version of Jane Eyre starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens is a better choice for those yearning for the sheer romance of the Victorian novel. Jane is a better fit for those looking for a heroine situated in the tumult of the modern world. It is heartbreaking to witness her poor self-image when comparing herself to the cosmetically perfect women in Nico's life. Any woman flipping through the Photoshop enhanced pages of a fashion magazine can empathize with her insecurities. She does not hold anything back physically from Nico, nor does she fall into an abject depression upon leaving him. She is a mixture of self-sufficiency and yielding values. The Victorian primness is replaced with a willingness for intimacy and riotous emotions are translated into a practicality toward survival. The grand design of fate is whittled down to the serendipity of a rock star's song on the radio.

Overall, Jane is a good introduction - but not a replacement - for those not familiar with the original.

Jane by April Lindner is available for $17.99 at Amazon.com and at AprilLindner.com.

A complimentary review copy was provided by New York Journal of Books.

Congratulations to our winner: Kathy Habel!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Jane Bregoli - The Goat Lady - Giveaway & Review

Teaching a child to have compassion is important. Jane Bregoli's The Goat Lady is a true story that shows how love can bring an elderly outcast back into the folds of society. When Jessica and David move to Dartmouth, Mass., they bring with them acceptance and understanding. They do not ridicule Noelie, who dresses funny and lets goats inside her house. Instead, they get to know her for who she truly is. By looking past her exterior appearance, they get to experience her generous, caring heart.

Jessica and David also share Noelie's true personality with others. Their mother (Bregoli) begins to capture Noelie's essence with her paintbrush - the impetus behind the book's creation. The Goat Lady's endearing portraits are intensely moving. They depict Noelie's quirkiness - one sock on, one sock off, her frugality - twine as a belt, and her gentleness - with a baby goat on her lap. For the town, the paintings provide a window into her life. With a new insight into their most-talked-about resident, the community embraces Noelie. She is asked to lead the Fourth of July parade and receives an award for providing the town with fresh goat's milk. Thanks to the interest of two children, she no longer lives in isolation.

What makes this story special is that it actually happened. It is not a packaged narrative with a simplistic moral tone. Instead, legitimate concerns, regarding hygiene and mental competency, are subjects that are mentioned, if only in passing. People may shy away from those who are eccentric, but usually not without reason. Noelie lives in a ramshackle, old farmhouse in desperate need of repair. Her poverty as well as her age are additional factors working against her in the realm of public opinion. The story does not gloss over the root causes behind these embedded perceptions.

Today, many forms of children's entertainment feature the antics of wise-cracking, know-it-all characters. It is refreshing to encounter a story that is so grounded in reality. It shows how a child has the power to make a difference in the life of an adult. Children are not powerless beings adrift in a world beyond their control. They have a voice, and when they use it, can effect change where it is most needed. Their influence is not to be underestimated.

Overall, this lady will get your goat, but in a good way.

The Goat Lady by Jane Bregoli is available for $16.95 at Amazon.com and at TilburyHouse.com.

A complimentary review copy was provided by Got Books?.

Congratulations to our winner: Molly@BookReviewsByMolly!