For better and for worse (pun intended), there’s a tradition wherein significant others of famous male writers publish memoirs after the late, great scribe has gone off to that literary pub in the sky.
Mary Hemingway, the fourth and final wife of Ernest, wrote a lengthy account titled How It Was. The last of Norman Mailer’s half-dozen beleaguered brides, Norris Church Mailer, published A Ticket to the Circus – telling us plenty about ol’ stormin’ Norman. Even Philip Roth’s short-lived marriage to Claire Bloom (they lasted five years) yielded a book—the far-less-than-flattering Leaving a Doll’s House.
In a more positive light than all the above, we now have Carol Gino’s new memoir: Me & Mario. It’s a combination of a love story and a whole lot more.
Carol Gino is a nurse, educator, and author who enjoyed her own best-selling success years ago with her novel The Nurse’s Story, and her nonfiction chronicle Rusty’s Story. In Me & Mario, she recapitulates her twenty-year involvement with Mario Puzo, whose third novel (The Godfather) has made him legendary.
Gino met Puzo in 1978, when Mario hired her as a private-duty nurse for his ailing wife Erika. At that time, Erika Puzo was dying of breast cancer, and the Puzo family refused to let her languish in a hospital. So, Carol Gino hired on as Erika’s nurse.
One year later, after Erika’s passing, slowly and with justifiable nervousness all around, Carol and Mario began to incrementally engage with each other more and more. Although they never married, they were partners to each other in every way from 1979 until Puzo’s death in 1999. Those twenty years bookend Me & Mario.
As a natural-born storyteller with a rhetorical verve all her own (along with a remarkable gift for re-creating conversations), Me & Mario is a crisp, energetic, intelligently recounted and compassionately humorous memoir. It really sings.
Here’s how Carol Gino sets the stage (and the tone) for all that follows:
The Mario Puzo I got to know intimately over the 20 years we worked and played together — as lovers and best buddies — was much more than “the Mafia man” his readers thought him to be. Yet, he did possess the same intelligence, cunning, and strategic thinking he gave Don Corleone in his book The Godfather. He was as devoted to family, as reasonable, and as wary of betrayal.
In time, I found that Mario was even more unique and complex than any of the characters he created. And certainly funnier. He had a real understanding of people, and endless patience. In all the years we spent together, I don’t remember hearing him say an unkind word about anyone.
In truth, he had several extraordinary gifts. He had true vision with the ability to see into the future and to distill the most complex ideas into simple concepts and language that anyone could understand. In the time we spent together, he taught me much more about life, love, power and writing than I had ever hoped to learn.
It’s Pygmalion with a twist, a different kind of love story, that I feel I have to tell. Why? Because in today’s world which lacks so much real magic, genuine passion, compassion, and true romance, Mario and I managed to sustain it. He was an authentic grown-up who never forgot the value of his own heart, or the dreams he had as a child. And he helped me learn to value mine.
Indeed, Puzo was unique in varied ways compared to his chronological peers in publishing. Others had gloried in youthful breakout successes. Mailer was 25 when The Naked and the Dead put him on the map; James Jones was barely 30 when From Here to Eternity established his mystique. Contrarily, Mario Puzo’s first two novels (The Dark Arena in 1955 and The Fortunate Pilgrim in 1965) were highly praised by literary critics but failed to sell. Then, in 1969, he published The Godfather.
Puzo’s decision, in his late 40s, saddled with debts and five children to support, to veer away from literary artistry and flex his muscles as a popular storyteller not only saved his family from perennial fiscal stress, it transformed the rest of his life.
By the time Carol Gino met Mario at the end of the 1970s, the first two Godfather films were already iconic and Puzo’s follow-up novel, Fools Die, had broken the record for a new novel being auctioned to a paperback publisher. And yet, there was a downside – Puzo’s latter-day success created envy, scorn, and a dismissive attitude, by and large, in the heraldic circles of America’s once-robust literati.
It was the same old song and dance: Great commercial success had to mean that one had “sold out.” Nonetheless, Puzo wrote and published for the rest of his life, while also earning a fortune as a screenwriter – inspiring more grudges for that, too.
Nonetheless, as Gino’s memoir makes clear, Mario never lost his love for life, his sense of humor, his endless curiosity, or his knack for kindness and generosity.
To say that Gino and Puzo were a case study in Opposites Attract is understatement.
Mario was twenty-one years older than Carol, and he remained to the end a product of his times – quite patriarchal, old-fashioned, and romantic as only one raised on films from the 1930s and 1940s can be romantic. However, as a woman who was just 25 in the year 1966, Carol Gino collided with all of the social turmoil of the 1960s and defined herself as a divorced feminist warrior during the 1970s.
Yet they experienced a magical rapport based on mutual respect, endless patience, and the several ways in which they complemented each other. Carol was talkative, and Mario was a world-class listener. Carol loved to argue ideas and debate a range of perspectives – but Puzo preferred to hold back, ponder, and be “reasonable.”
Here’s another sample of the way that Me & Mario shares their journey:
But don’t misunderstand, there were still times we drove each other crazy, and we did fight.
Well, maybe that’s not completely true. I fought with him, and he struggled to understand what I was trying to say. For in truth, we came from different species. He was, after all, a man, and I was, after all, a woman.
Mario taught me more than any other man that a relationship is not only about love, it is also about power. Power in all its disguises was something Mario truly understood. That was an aspect of human nature that fascinated him. His exploration of it was the basis of all his stories. He explained to me, more than once, that the kind of power he explored was the kind of power men admired. That was power in the “outside world.”
He insisted that women were expert in a different kind of power. They knew more about inner power, and that was the kind of power he and I could study. It was the understanding of power in the outside world that he tried to foster in me. It was the inner power of women that he wanted to learn.
“Without a balance of power, there can’t be equality in any relationship,” he explained.
“You want equality for women, right?”
“Actually, I want equality,” I said. “I don’t want women to get more money or more breaks than men. That throws the equality thing off again,” I explained.
Mostly, I got it, and when I didn’t, it was because he was, after all, a man, and I am, after all, a woman.
That we managed to love each other and understand each other in spite of that was in itself a miracle. That we were able to learn from and respect each other was an even greater miracle.
Mario often said he believed men would become extinct.
“No, no, they won’t,” I said, impassioned. “I can’t believe that.” He smiled when he said, “Why? When women can do everything men can, then why will they need men?”
“For the differences they offer,” I told him. “For their infuriating differences. They still make the world interesting. Besides, I’d rather compete with men, it makes the game more fun.”
Me & Mario never loses its buoyant tempo or its engaging content. There’s a great deal of travel writing woven into the text, and with Gino and Puzo the reader goes along from Long Island and New York City to Malibu and London; then Cannes and Sicily; Las Vegas and elsewhere. Carol Gino writes honestly about Mario’s vast appetites for food, gambling, and lavish spending – but also highlights his deep devotion to reading and concentrated bursts of writing, as well as his practical advice to her about editors, publishers, and the writing process (he affirmed in every way her own desire to be a published author).
In a world of broken dreams and shattered hearts, it’s a tonic to read this celebration of friendship, affection, and love. Me & Mario has a glow to it.
In The Man Who Fell from the Sky, Bill Fletcher, Jr.’s debut novel, one of his character’s says of the plot, “Amazing, you couldn’t make a story like this up.” But Fletcher does, and the short chapters, suspenseful narrative, and incisive prose keep you turning the pages, waiting to see the next eventful twist, right to the end.
The title alone is enough to draw you in and Fletcher delays explanation of this spiral through space—a World War II crewmember of a bomber who slips from the plane after dislodging a stuck bomb—as he develops his cast, particularly his protagonist David Gomes, an aspiring journalist at a small press in Cape Cod.
When TJ Smith is mysteriously killed by a sniper one morning after leaving his house and entering his truck, the novel engages the reader, and like David you want to know why this seemingly upstanding citizen is the victim of an assassin.
But as the tale unravels there are other victims, and, as David discovers. they are all members of a crew on a bomber plane with missions over Italy toward the end of World War II. David, like Fletcher, meticulously delves into the intricacies of the tragedies, gradually assembling the pieces of the puzzle that leads to a suspect, who is among several under suspicion.
Since I am basically a nonfiction writer and reader, there was my usual hesitancy to get too involved in fiction, but because the author is an activist I have been affiliated with in various political movements, I thought I would give a cursory glance at a couple chapters and see if it grabbed me.
It did, and I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised since even in Fletcher’s nonfiction essays there’s always a glimmer of what’s now called creative nonfiction. These elements are particularly evident in his descriptive passages where he introduces a character or develops a scene.
While we get the size, age, hair color, and other aspects of the numerous personalities in the novel, it’s not until the end that David’s color and ethnicity becomes vital components to the story. In fact, that he is a black journalist opens an entirely new and intriguing plot line that is essential to understanding exactly what happened to the man who fell from the sky.
Inevitably, David’s pursuit of the serial assassin and his reportage brings his own life into the deadly crosshairs, and there’s no more intense scene than when he is finally face to face with the killer.
It was not unexpected that Fletcher would find time and space to ruminate on some of the liberation struggles where he has been such a formidable participant, but the mention of Amilcar Cabral, the Black Panthers, and other revolutionaries are merely teases that begs a follow up, though the novel has its own coda that extends a generation beyond the seventies.
Most appealing is Fletcher’s pace and journalistic insights; there are more than a complement of cinematic moments, and it is not farfetched for David to have visions of a Pulitzer or to get some motion picture overtures.
Fletcher has woven an engrossing story that harkens back to the forties while he connects the seventies and sprints forward into the 21st Century. I feel this is just the beginning of a trove of fiction waiting to spring from this author’s deeply creative imagination.
The Monk of Mokha is a good read, probably because it’s a real-life story told by a skilled writer, Dave Eggers, the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and other good reads. He keeps the story moving along at a nice pace.
The Monk of Mokha is the true story of a young Yemeni-American man, raised in San Francisco, who dreamt of resurrecting the ancient art of growing coffee in Yemen and had the willingness to put a plan into action. Mokhtar Alkhanshali is 24 years old when the story begins and is working as a doorman when he becomes fascinated with the history of Yemen’s place in the development of coffee as a beverage enjoyed the world over daily by millions of people.
Ask historians where the drinking of coffee started, and some will say it began in Ethiopia in the 9th Century, however, others might say it began as early as the 6th Century, 575 AD in Yemen.
According to the Ethiopian apocryphal story, Kaldi, an Abyssinian goal herder from Kaffa was herding his goats through the highland near a monastery, when he noticed they were jumping about in an excited manner, bleating loudly and practically dancing on their hind legs. He found a small shrub nearby with bright red berries and tried some himself, finding that the consumption helped him stay awake. So, he took some home to his wife, who took them to the monastery. The monks called them “the devil’s work” and threw them onto the fire. The aroma caused the monks to remove, crush and cover them with hot water, hence our first cups of coffee.
The Yemeni maintain coffee was discovered by a Sufi mystic, Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin al-Hasan al Shadhili, a disciple of Sheikh Omar. Gradually the custom of brewing coffee took hold and spread—by the 13th Century it was revered as a potent medicine.
By the 15th Century it was shipped to other countries from the port city of Mokha, and by the 17th Century it had spread to Europe, and from there to the New World.
Given the complications in the production of coffee, it’s a testament to just how beloved a beverage it is that people are willing to go to all the trouble it takes to produce coffee. Most are unaware that five outside layers must be removed to get to the bean, which is then roasted and crushed.
During the middle part of the 20th Century consumption of coffee was standard in the United States beans were imported from various locations around the world, roasted, ground and sold by such megalithic American companies as Hills Brothers and Folgers. In the 1980’s a better-quality coffee was sold by companies such a Starbucks and Peets.
Despite the increased cost, Americans took to it, just as they had to better-quality, more expensive ice cream from Hagan Das. Taking their cue from the success of Starbucks, coffee specialty cafes arose, such as the Blue Bottle in the Bay Area, where a cup of high rating coffee might cost as much as $12.
When Mokhtar first went to Yemeni to travel to the coffee-producing areas of the country he found more acres were given over to the cultivation of qat (a form of marijuana that is chewed in Yemen) than of coffee. Mokhtar wanted to change all that.
His plan required that he learn all he could about coffee and how it is rated, then to return to Yemen to convince farmers to resume growing coffee, teaching them how to properly sort the beans so only the ripe and best quality would be processed. He left San Francisco and traveled deep into his ancestral home—I didn’t know Yemen was such a varied and interesting country—to tour terraced farms high in the country’s rugged mountains, where he talked to farmers about the glories of Yemen’s past as the world’s principle producer of coffee.
But this was the 2000’s, when the northern Houthis, much like the Taliban in Afghanistan, took over much of country and forced President Saleh into exile. Because they felt that the Houthis were backed by their arch-enemy Iran, the Saudi began bombing the country.vMokhtar got caught in the crossfire—as war engulfed Yemen and Saudi bombs rained down, he found a way out of Yemen by taking a small boat from Mokha across the Red Sea to Djibouti City in Eritrea, with his wares on his back.
Despite the continued bombing shiploads and airplane loads of Yemini coffee have made their way to Oakland, California, where it is sold in specialty stores, such the Blue Bottle, where for $14 a cup coffee aficionado can enjoy a cup of Yemenite coffee.
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