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Life of my Life

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by Vincent Cardinale

This is one of those rare books that you know, from the moment you start reading, you are going to enjoy. The tale of a Sicilian butcher living in Oakland, California, doesn't sound like the stuff of great literature; yet, from the opening paragraphs, where Salvator Cavriaghi's first encounter with his future wife ends in humiliation for him, the mixture of slapstick comedy and threatening tragedy had me hooked.

Despite being an ace knife-sharpener and possessing the singing voice of a Caruso, Salvator is a novice in the ways of love. Every time the seventeen-year-old Anna Toscana puts in an appearance at his father's shop, he falls apart. All of a sudden, the little details of everyday life take on a new significance. But Anna's violent, despotic father disapproves of her new admirer. The road to romance promises to be a rocky one.

As is so often the case with the works on these pages, the discovery that this book is not only published as a POD paperback, but is actually available free in e-book form, both thrilled and mystified me. Who is this Vincent Cardinale and why does he need to take such steps? All I could find out about the author was that he once lived in Oakland and now lives in New York. One more thing I figured out for myself: he has an astonishing turn of phrase, an ability to make the most mundane and/or most distasteful of sights and sounds take on a new appearance, one that both disturbs and delights the reader:

"The scent of bread wafting from the bakery across the street filtered through the caustic rankness of hot asphalt  ... together, these scents, and the scent of his own blood, now strong to him, made Salvator nauseous."

An outstanding feature is the affectionate homage paid by the author to the butcher - one artist to another, as it were. One hardly expects that such a story will appeal to vegetarians; nevertheless, the reader can take an unexpected pleasure in the lingering descriptions of the meat trade: "He brought the beef back out to his block, this time easily lifting it to his shoulder without the slightest hint of imbalance. With smooth and deliberate strokes, Salvator parsed the waiting hindquarter into three sections."

Being no particular fan of American writing, still less of American films, I was astonished to find myself relishing the smart-alec observations ("If Paulo Bruno was famous for anything, it was his ability to annoy the crap out of Claudio Cavriaghi, Salvator Cavriaghi, and Nino di Lampedusa in less time than it took those men to properly pronounce their own names."), the Godfather-style dialogue ("There's no way in hell I'm selling my store. They want it, they're going to have to come in and take it."), and the instant characterisations ("Nino, whose weathered face looked like a chunk of redwood burl"). But I just couldn't help it.

All books have their imperfections, and this is no exception. It could have done with better proof-reading, for a start. The most serious flaw, however, comes after the lyrical beauty and nicely-paced action of the first half have won the reader over. The author chooses this point to allow his enthusiasm to run away with him, as though he couldn't wait to finish the story. Much as one might sympathise with this tendency, it amounts to a missed opportunity for character and plot development, as months pass in the space of a few paragraphs.

For all that, Life of My Life still stands out a mile from most of the novels I've reviewed. The story has no pretensions, as the title perhaps divulges. It's unusual for a male author to produce a straight, and convincing, love story. In fact, Mr Cardinale's themes are miscellaneous - family and friendship, love and conflict, youth, work, and much more. To recommend this book seems somehow inadequate. I feel I have to insist that you read it. If you don't enjoy it, it'll be your own fault.


ISBN 0 595 00627 2
Published by iUniverse, 2000
189pp, paperback
Retail price $10.95

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Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher