Thursday Reviews: Charlie Opera by Charlie Stella


Charlie Stella

Charlie Pellechia takes his wife to Vegas in a last ditch effort to save his marriage. Unfortunately, she’s had enough of him and his love of opera. So what was supposed to be a second honeymoon is the end of their marriage.

Only Nicky Cuccia has other ideas. Nicky is a wise guy and thinks there should have been no consequences to grabbing Charlie’s wife’s ass. There were, however, as Charlie broke his jaw defending his wife’s honor. Cuccia follows Charlie to Vegas and proceeds to beat both of them up separately, through hired muscle, then tries to kill Charlie. But he can’t get that right. An aging mobster, dying of cancer, decides to turn before the job is done. Cuccia’s other hired hands are a vapid body builder and a would-be wise guy who loses his nerve easily. There very presence brings them into the sites of a nervous organized crime cop, a DEA agent out to save his own hide, and the psycho ex of a waitress whose roommate Charlie ends up with.

This is a little bit of a departure for Stella. The cops play a bigger role in this, and the main protag, the titular Charlie, is not a mobster. He’s a civilian caught up in Cuccia’s macho vendetta. Plus the story takes place almost entirely in Las Vegas, new territory for Stella, who usually sets his stories in New York. Stella is juggling a lot of balls here, including a subplot about a Vegas cop whose wife is cheating on him. It’s more complex than Jimmy Bench Press and Eddie’s World, and unlike the follow-up, Cheapskates, is only very loosely tied to the world of those books.

Wednesday Reviews: The Autobiography Of Mark Twain by… Um… , Jimmy Benchpress by Charlie Stella, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

By Mark Twain

This book lists at least six editors aside from Mark Twain himself. In fact, if you get the full edition of this first of three intended volumes, you have more notes than you have actual text. The notes themselves make up an entire second book about Twain. I blogged here a few weeks back about ditching the audio version. I’m not a big fan of putting footnotes and citations in audio works. I know why it’s done, but in this case, it took over ninety minutes of listening before I heard one line of Twain’s prose. Thus, I sent the audiobook back to the library and downloaded it on Kindle. If you’re looking to read Twain riffing on Twain, get this in print or on Kindle. Much easier to flip pages and get to the meat of the work. Plus, if you want to do some research of your own, the notes provide tons of material ripe for study.

I, of course, wanted to hear from the man himself, Twain. Twain, Samuel Clemens to his family and friends, stipulated that this three-volume set not be released until 100 years after his death. There were two earlier, shorter versions he authorized, and the introductory notes explain the editorial decisions, good and bad, that were made. In those versions, certain material was omitted as Twain did not want it released in certain people’s lifetimes. During World War II, there were people who knew Twain still walking the Earth, though if Volume 1 is anything to judge by, they had little to worry about.

Twain puts everything in, all his false starts, some character sketches of people he knew (most notably Ulysses S. Grant), and finally settles into some dictations made during the last four years of his life. The result is a rambling monologue of Twain talking about everything from his mechanical ineptitude, his adventures as a miner in Nevada, how US Grant came to write his autobiography, and anything else that crosses his mind. The rambling, unstructured format is intentional, and it took Twain nearly three decades to settle on it, when he found the perfect stenographer to take dictation. Within the manuscripts from these later years, Twain adds passages from an unfinished biography written by his daughter, Suzy, who died when she was 22.

Twain spares no one. He dislikes President Roosevelt, though he is fond of Theodore Roosevelt. He is close friends with John Hay, Lincoln’s secretary and one of Roosevelt’s most trusted advisers. He seems to be well-versed in Christianity, but hates religion. He is as disparaging about himself at times as he is about others, many times offering the criticism with tongue implanted in cheek. The funniest stories often feature Twain as a boy and the unfortunate victim of his own mischief. It’s pretty clear from this volume – as if we didn’t know already – that Twain is Tom Sawyer, and the white wash incident has several real-life inspirations. We also learn who the real Huckleberry Finn was, and at least his father wasn’t nearly as racist as Huck’s pa (though, from what I can tell in this tome, he was three times as drunk.) Twain doesn’t say much about his aborted career in the Confederate army, but since his family was a group of unenthusiastic slave holders, and his brother Orion was an abolitionist, the Glorious Cause definitely didn’t seem glorious to Twain.

The book is funny, and there’s a reader’s edition on Amazon (produced by the edtiors of this edition). I highly recommend getting that version if you can. I can’t wait to read the next volume as Twain has more thoughts on that “damnable human race” and stories about other luminaries of his time, such as Nikolai Tesla. The original plan was to release volumes 2 and 3 by 2015. If so, I would suggest making the reader’s edition the primary audio version. I’m sure Hal Holbrook wouldn’t mind doing the reading.

Jimmy Bench-Press

Charlie Stella

Charlie Stella’s second novel tells the tale of Jimmy Mangino, aka “Jimmy Benchpress.” Jimmy is huge. He can bench press 400 pounds. Hence the nickname. Fresh out of prison, he’s looking for work and looking for a big score that will pad his bank account nicely. He finds it in Larry Berra, a Mafia wannabe and probably the dumbest loan shark ever. Berra hires him as muscle to get back $58,000 from an elderly barber who clearly didn’t have it to pay back. While working for Larry, Jimmy decides he’s going to help himself to Larry’s money. But first, he helps himself to Larry’s girlfriend. He has a few other scams working against people who employ him, but let’s be honest. Jimmy’s in it for Jimmy. That puts him in the crosshairs of Alex Pavlik, an organized crime cop who already is in hot water for giving a pedophile killer a twenty-minute beating. So Pavlik and his rage control issues are sent to the OC squad where life is supposedly quiet.

Stella, himself a former knockaround guy, paints a very unglamorous picture of life as a Mafioso and as a cop. The street level soldiers in the mob and their counterparts in the NYPD are often the victims of those above them who lose sight of what their purpose is. Plus there’s always one guy on either side whose ego and rage threaten to crash the whole works. For the mob, that’s Jimmy.

Like Eddie’s World, Jimmy Bench-Press is a very working class novel. Whereas Eddie Senta, though, is a likeable sort just trying to survive and flirting with going straight, Jimmy Mangino is an unlikeable protag. Like Hannibal Lecter or Heath Ledger’s Joker, this guy is walking chaos, simply doing what he does because he’s smooth and he’s intimidating. Unlike Lecter or The Joker, Jimmy’s unlikely to trigger a nationwide manhunt or hold an entire city hostage. One of his own would likely shoot him in the head if it came to that.

It’s actually Pavlik who is the eyes and ears of the outsider in this one. Pavlik’s rage is over how innocents are treated. While police must deal with that sort of violence everyday, they are expected to handle it with a certain amount of restraint. Reading Pavlik’s reaction to the murder of young boys by a pederast or how Jimmy pushes around an old man, you’re right there with him saying, “Screw restraint. Where’s my Louisville slugger?”

The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition

Christopher Vogler

Why are so many Hollywood movies written to a certain pattern? Blame Joseph Campbell. His The Hero With a Thousand Faces has become the yardstick by which everything from science fiction epics to horror movies to even romantic comedies are measured. So why read Christopher Vogler’s distillation of Campbell’s tome?

Well, because it’s a good way to tell a story. Mind you, not every story follows what Vogler calls “the hero’s journey.” Indeed, Vogler points out that some cultures are not big on hero stories. Australia is a country where this type of story-telling doesn’t work. And in Germany, Kaiser Willy and Adolf Hitler pretty much killed the form for an entire nation. But Vogler is not about praising the journey or burying it.The Writer’s Journey is about doing this type of story right. He breaks a story down to distinct phases. Done properly, these phases can be used to shed light on a story to shore up its weaknesses or point a writer to a path out of a confusing plot problem. But the hero’s journey, he says, has to be done right. If it’s used as a model instead of a formula, stories will sing. When it’s used as a crutch…

Well, if it has enough explosions, Michael Bay might want to make it into a film.

Thursday Reviews: American Creation, Eddie’s World


By Joseph Ellis

A couple of years ago, I wrote about Joseph Ellis’s two presidential biographies, his demystification of George Washington, His Excellency, and his rather fanboyish tribute to Jefferson, American Sphinx. Of the two, I was most disappointed with Sphinx. Ellis seemed a bit too earnest in rationalizing Jefferson’s contradictions, almost afraid that, if left unexplained, we’d somehow come to the wrong conclusion about the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Then we come to American Creation, where Ellis eloquently explains something I’ve always argued until I’m blue in the face. The Founding Fathers were not a unified monolithic group with a clear-cut agenda, ticking off bullet points one by one. (Action item 1: Fire George III, Action item 2: Kick out British troops, Action item 3: Write Constitution, Action item 4: Elect Washington president…)

Ellis defines the Founding Period as the 28 years from 1775 to 1803, from the first shots of the Revolution to the Louisiana Purchase. He then portrays the defining moments of this period as plays with a shifting cast of stars who wax and wane with each installment. They are the 15 months from the first shots at Lexington to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, the drafting of the Constitution, the rise of the two-party system, and the Lousiana Purchase.

Ellis is a bit scarce in his details about the Constitution. While accurate, he sounds like he’s saying that Congress commissioned a constitutional convention in Annapolis that adjourned to Philadelphia for a few Yuenglings, then picked up where they left off. There is nothing on the arguments over the type of presidency America would have, Hamilton’s suggestion the president by elected for life, or the arguments over a bicameral legislature vs. a unicameral one. He does, however, detail Madison’s surprising proposal that the federal government have veto power over all state laws. While generally a bad idea, it would have ended John C. Calhoun’s political career before he was even born.

But if Ellis was a Jefferson fanboy in Sphinx, he gives no such quarter to our third president in Creation. Here, Ellis calls Jefferson on the carpet for failing to push slavery into its eventual extinction. Jefferson was one of several forward thinking slave holders who saw the institution as a moral paradox in a republican nation. But, Ellis suggests, if John Adams and other northerners could desire emancipation without fear of freed black reprisals, Jefferson should have been able to reach that same conclusion. But then Jefferson’s mind often worked on multiple contradictory tracks, making him equal parts genius and mad man. Fortunately for America, Jefferson’s madness was a managed one.


By Charlie Stella

I’m linking the Kindle edition here because the hardcover I read is out of print. That’s good for you because the ebook is only $3.99. Good for you. Good for Charlie.

Why’s that good? Eddie’s World is Charlie Stella’s debut from way back in 2001. Eddie Senta is a knockaround guy with problems. He wants out of the mob life, but he needs one last score. His wife is becoming insanely successful to the point where she wants to have a baby. Just not with Eddie. But Eddie can be in the baby’s life after a time. Confused? In the meantime, he’s planning to heist a former employer of $15,000. He’s getting help from an ex-coworker, an on-again, off-again drunk who is in sexual bondage to her boss.

Unfortunately, she’s got a new boyfriend named James. And James wants the money for himself. Since he’s under federal protection, he sees no reason not to help himself. James is Murphy’s Law personified, and he makes everything turn to garbage for Eddie.

Stella’s mob is not the romanticized mob of The Godfather and Goodfellas. He portrays it as a largely blue collar organization with few of the trappings from the movies. Guys like Eddie don’t get rich doing what they do, and Eddie works full time as a freelance word processor (a job Stella does in real life.) You want a grand epic about honor among thieves, go read Puzo. Stella has been in the streets and can tell you how it really works.