All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani – Book Review

All This Talk of Love by Christopher Castellani
Published by Algonquin Books, an imprint of Workman Press

Maddalena came to the United States with her husband Antonio 50 years ago, and by now she has given up any idea of ever returning to Italy. After all this time, most of the people she knew and loved are either dead or sick; Maddalena would prefer simply to remember them as they were. Unfortunately for the Grasso family peace, Antonio and Maddalena’s strong-willed daughter Prima has decided that it is in everyone’s best interest for the whole family – her parents, her husband and sons, and her younger brother Frankie – to return to her parents’ ancestral home. Antonio wants this trip just as badly as Prima does, but Maddalena and Frankie are dead-set against it.

It took me awhile before I connected to the story in All This Talk of Love. The novel opens on Frankie, and I found the story of him and his married lover to be the least compelling part of the novel. I continued reading, however, and before long I found myself completely caught up in the Grasso family. There is so much more to their story than meets the eye: illnesses, the loss of a child, even issues of sexuality. The farther you get into All This Talk of Love, the more realistic and fully formed the characters become. Some of the family members – particularly Antonio – hold views that bothered me. I’ll admit that this put me off a bit when I first encountered them, but they are very true to who he is, the age in which he was raised, and his background, all of which just makes him feel like an even more realistic character.

Ultimately All This Talk of Love is a realistic and moving book. Recommended.

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Literary Rogues by Andrew Shaffer – Book Review

Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors by Andrew Shaffer
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins

From the Marquis de Sade to Edgar Allan Poe to Bret Easton Ellis, there are, in the history of authors, some seriously screwed up individuals. In Literary Rogues, Shaffer details the lives and debaucheries of more than thirty, as the title says, wayward authors. As might be expected, there is a whole lot of sex, drugs, and alcohol herein, but somehow Shaffer manages to keep all of the authors from running together.

Shaffer does not divide up the lives of his subjects here as clearly as he does in Great Philosophers Who Fail at Love. In Great Philosophers, Shaffer gives each philosopher a separate chapter, even when they are interrelated. In Literary Rogues, on the other hand, writers who were friends, lovers, and compatriots frequently occupy chapters together, the narrative even drifts occasionally between two authors as the history warrants it.

What is particularly impressive about Literary Rogues is that Shaffer does not simply stick to the bad boys (and girls) of 20th century literature. Whole books could be (and indeed have been) written about Hemingway or the Fitzgeralds, but Shaffer begins all the way back in the 18th century with the Marquis de Sade and doesn’t stop until he comes to James Frey, drug addict and pseudo-memoirist extraordinaire.

Because many authors have similar vices, Literary Rogues might be best enjoyed in bits and pieces, a chapter here, a chapter there so as not to get bogged down in all the alcohol-induced deaths. Still, this is a fascinating account of some of the best-known writers of the later-day Western canon.

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ucy Arlington

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The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits – Book Review

The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits
Published by Doubleday Books, an imprint of Random House

From the publisher:

Is the bond between mother and daughter unbreakable, even by death?

Julia Severn is a student at an elite institute for psychics. Her mentor, the legendary Madame Ackermann, afflicted by jealousy, refuses to pass the torch to her young disciple. Instead, she subjects Julia to the humiliation of reliving her mother’s suicide when Julia was an infant. As the two lock horns, and Julia gains power, Madame Ackermann launches a desperate psychic attack that leaves Julia the victim of a crippling ailment.

Julia retreats to a faceless job in Manhattan. But others have noted Julia’s emerging gifts, and soon she’s recruited to track down an elusive missing person—a controversial artist who might have a connection to her mother. As Julia sifts through ghosts and astral clues, everything she thought she knew of her mother is called into question, and she discovers that her ability to know the minds of others—including her own—goes far deeper than she ever imagined.

From plot to characterization to prose, Julavits has a mesmerizing writing style, something that makes her particularly well suited to telling the story of a woman with psychic aptitude slowly regaining her talent. The Vanishers is intriguing, unexpected, and difficult to put down. Julia is woefully unaware of the direction her life is taking, in a manner that would be obnoxious in most protagonists.

Given my repeated failures to intuit when danger awaited me, it should come as no surprise to learn: I went. -p. 219

Perhaps it is because of the completely unexpected plot Julavits has introduced. Readers are not often asked to accept a world populated by characters with genuine psychic abilities, particularly in literary fiction. Somehow Julavits manages to put her reader squarely in the realm of suspended disbelief, enough so that even Julia’s nearly aimless wanderings do not grate. Or, perhaps it is the themes of female relationships and the tension and love that can ensue and even coexist that universalizes the story Julavits is telling about Julia’s life, even as most of her specific  experiences do not resemble those of the average reader in the least.

The Vanishers is at times jarring and, as such, is certainly not for everyone, particularly with the threads of suicide, radical surgery, and people going missing on purpose running through it. However, for those willing to approach it, Julavits has magic to work. Highly recommended. 

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