Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi: A Winsome Tale of a Rookie Teacher

(WordPress is doing that thing again where it messes up the html in my post header. I think I’ve fixed it, but if the beginning of the post looks ugly, sorry, I’m doing my best)

Mr. Pizza
Mr. Pizza

by J. F. Pandolfi


ePUB, 298 pg.
L&A Publications, 2018

Read: December 4 – 5, 2018

On the verge of graduating from college, Tony Piza (long “I”, and yes, he’s heard all the jokes), decides he’s not ready to head to law school and would like to take a year off. Inspired by a suggestion from his roommate, he applies to teach at a Roman Catholic school near his home. He figures that it’ll be pretty easy — spout some facts and figures from the text-book, assign some homework, do a little grading, catch up on his reading. All while living rent-free with his parents and sister. Despite never having taken an education class, nor showing any previous interest in education, and some iffy interview questions, he’s hired.

Early on, he performs his duties just as he planned — and it’s as successful as you imagine. But before long, he starts to see his students as individuals, not some faceless mass. It’s just a few steps from there to caring about their education and trying to do something about it. Tony also makes some friends with fellow teachers — two other lay teachers (including the other male staff member), and one nun. They start to rub off on him — and even inspire him.

But that doesn’t mean he turns into Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr or George Feeny, he’s more like a version of Gabe Kotter or Charlie Moore. Unconventional, off-kilter, and comical — yet challenging. Both his lectures and his assignments bring out the strengths and weaknesses his students (and their parents) were unaware they possessed. They also get Tony in trouble with parents, school administrators and school board members.

Essentially, the novel is a bildungsroman, watching Tony’s development from someone who sees teaching as a vacation from his real life to someone truly invested in it. I don’t want to say that it’s a smooth transition or that he flips the switch and becomes the World’s Greatest 6th Grade Teacher ™. That would make for a very dull novel.

Pandolfi writes in a very smooth, assured style. There’s not a lot of artistic flourishes — that’s not a critique, just an observation. It is charming, frequently amusing, and pretty earnest. I was a little afraid after reading the description that this would be a satire that tried too hard, one of those books where you can see the writer trying to be funny (which almost never works) — but I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t. Tony seemed to try too hard, but not Pandolfi — a character doing that is annoying, but it’s a character trait; a writer doing that is frequently a a deal breaker.

Tony’s antics and judgement are a mixed bag, as I mentioned. Early on, some of his jokes/behavior didn’t seem like fun, they seemed capricious and even mean — but so did M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye and Duke Forrest (the book and movie versions, anyway). From the get-go the 1973 setting and sensibility put me in that frame of mind, so that’s where my mind went. And sure, part of the book is to show his growth from that, but it’s pretty off-putting. Similarly, I had trouble swallowing how tone-deaf he was when it came to jokes about Roman Catholics (even after being warned), yet he was reflexively sensitive to other people/problems (frequently in a way that seemed at least somewhat anachronistic).

Ultimately, I was able to get past that — and it’s possible that without me putting something about that in my notes, I’d have forgotten to mention it. Because of his growth, by that last third or so of the book, you see almost no signs of this (except when his past comes back to haunt him). So, I guess I’m saying, if you’re put off by some of his early behavior, give him a chance.

His sister, Patty, has Down’s Syndrome. I really appreciated the way that Pandolfi treated her. She’s simply a character — there’s no After-School Special moment with her, she’s not an object of pity — she’s simply Tony’s little sister. There are funny moments with her, some sweet moments with her — just like there are with Tony’s mother and father.

Tony’s students, fittingly, come close to stealing the novel from Tony. As is the case with the Bad News Bears, the Sweathogs, Fillmore High’s IHP class, etc., you have to want to see the kids do well to care about their teacher. They’re a diverse group, each having some distinctive characteristics and/or problems. They come to believe in their “Mr. Pizza” long before the staff, or even Tony — and stay his biggest supporters through the ups and downs that ensue. If you don’t like at least most of the students, there’s something wrong with you and you should seek professional help. Or just re-read the book, because you probably missed something.

The rest of the cast of characters are well-drawn and believable. There are a few that I’m glad we didn’t get much time with (Tony’s extended family, for example). His friends, fellow teachers and principal are strong characters, a couple of them are better developed. But that’s simply due to time spent with them. Pandolfi has a gift for good characters, which is half the battle in a novel.

Mr. Pizza is a charming tale of a young man maturing at a turning point in his life. There’s some good laughs, some uncomfortable moments, and some earnest emotional beats. The book is a pleasure to read and it — and it’s protagonist — will win you over and get you rooting for them both.

Disclaimer: I received this book from RABT Book Tours in exchange for this post and my participation in the book tour.

—–

3.5 Stars

✔ Read a book with your favorite food in the title.

RABT Book Tours & PR
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Know Me from Smoke by Matt Phillips: A heart-wrenching noir love story.

Know Me from SmokeKnow Me from Smoke

by Matt Phillips

Kindle Edition, 193 pg.
Fahrenheit 13, 2018
Read: November 15 – 16, 2018

If you’re looking for an example of noir — in the classic sense — look no farther than Matt Phillips’ Know Me from Smoke. You can tell that’s going to be the case from the opening paragraphs. The first chapter builds on those first three or four paragraphs and sets the atmosphere, the mood, the tone for the rest of the book — and pretty much casts a spell on the reader, too. The second chapter — where we meet our second protagonist firms that up, and from there Phillips builds on this foundation to deliver a book that will stay with you long after you’re done with it.

But let’s step back from that for a minute — we begin by meeting Stella Radney. She’s in her mid-40’s, a lounge singer, and a widow still grieving her murdered husband twenty years after his death. During the robbery that left Virgil dead, Stella was shot as well and the bullet’s still in her hip — a constant reminder that her loss and pain are physical as well as emotional. Both pains seem a bit fresher in the beginning of the book because Stella’s been informed that new DNA technology (unavailable 20 years ago), has led the DA’s office to reopen the case and they hope to have an arrest soon. Stella’s feeling a little raw, hanging on only by more alcohol than is probably good for her and losing her self regularly in the music she performs.

Royal Atkins is a free man, a man with a second chance — a convicted killer released on a technicality and determined to make the best of his second chance. Sadly, a couple of men at his halfway house decide that the best thing for Royal would be to join them and pull a few stickups — and a few other forms of robbery as well. Royal resists — but it’s as clear to him as it is to the reader that this won’t last.

Stella and Royal meet and the chemistry is instantaneous. The chapter where they meet for the first time is possibly the best chapter I’ve read this year — just magic. For obvious reasons, Royal edits the personal history he tells Stella, and his associates from the halfway house use this to blackmail him into going along with them. He’s trying to build a new life, she’s trying to rebuild her life, and neither of them want to be alone in the process.

So we get to watch the growing love story of Stella and Royal, Royal’s history being used against him, the crime spree, and the certainty that this is going to all going to come to a messy end. A little before the halfway point, I put in my notes, “if I stop, some broken people get to live a decent life. If I read another chapter or two, everything will fall apart and lives will be ruined. So tempted to walk away from it.” I really was — I liked these two so much, I wanted to let them have this chance.

But there was no way I was going to stop, Phillips’ prose was too good to abandoned, and I had to see what actually happened to these characters (no matter how inevitable the end seemed). Seriously, I’d have kept reading just so Stella could think about her relationship to music and songs some more — those sections of the book are practically poetry.

There’s conversation between a couple of characters about Pulp Fiction — and Tarantino’s work feels appropriate to this book. But not that movie. Jackie Brown is the movie that this feels like. Maybe the novel, too, but I haven’t read Rum Punch. They’re both from the same species of sweet, second-chance at love story in the middle of a story of crime, criminals and ex-cons.

This is going to go for my entry for “Read a book you chose based on the cover” in the While You Were Reading challenge — it’s not entirely true, but the cover is fantastic and got me to read the blurb a few times, so it’s close enough.

I love that title, too.

There’s just so many things that are right about this book, and so little that’s wrong. This is a winner — it’ll grab you by the heartstrings, will pull you along through the highs and lows of this story, and only let you go some time after you finish (I’m not sure how long that effect will last, but it’s been almost a week and it really hasn’t let go yet).

—–

4 Stars

February 2018 Report

My numbers should’ve been a little better — but between Iron Gold taking more time than I was prepared for, and ongoing sickness, I got a little behind with reading — and the writing took another hit this month, that I really can’t explain. Oh well. Onward and upward, and all that, right?

Anyway, here’s what happened here in February:

Books/Novels/Novellas Read/Listened to:

Like a Champion Golden Gremlin A Blogger's Manifesto
4 Stars 2 1/2 Stars 3.5 Stars
Uber Diva Smoke Eaters Fated (Audiobook)
3 Stars 4 1/2 Stars 4 Stars
Sanctification Iron Gold The Fed-up Cow
3 Stars 4 Stars 3 Stars
Brighton Beach Memoirs (Audiobook) The Meifod Claw The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths
3.5 Stars 2 Stars 4 1/2 Stars
The Late Show (Audiobook) Timekeepers Blood Binds the Pack
4 Stars 4 Stars 4 1/2 Stars
The Ark of Safety Illinois Native Americans: A 9,000 Year Civilization Resurrection Men
3.5 Stars“> 3 Stars 5 Stars
The Armored Saint            
3 Stars            

Still Reading:

Volume 9: Sermons to the Church Secular Jewish Culture      

Reviews Posted:

Book Challenge Progress:

Angel's Guilty Pleasures Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
Brighton Beach Memoirs by Neil Simon, Max Casella, Peter Michael Goetz, Valerie Harper, Alexana Lambros, Anna Sophie Loewenberg, Jonathan Silverman, Joyce Van Patten
The Late Show by Michael Connelly, Katherine Moennig
Resurrection Men by Ian Rankin (link forthcoming)

Like a Champion by Vincent Chu
Golden Gremlin by Rod A. Walters
A Blogger’s Manifesto: A Modern Day Guide to Blogging by Aman Mittal
Uber Diva by Charles St. Anthony
Smoke Eaters
The Fed-up Cow by Peta Lemon, Maria Dasic Todori
The Meifod Claw by JW Bowe
Timekeepers by Simon Garfield
Illinois Native Americans by in60Learning.com

Like a Champion by Vincent Chu
Golden Gremlin by Rod A. Walters
A Blogger’s Manifesto: A Modern Day Guide to Blogging by Aman Mittal
Uber Diva by Charles St. Anthony
The Fed-up Cow by Peta Lemon, Maria Dasic Todori
The Meifod Claw by JW Bowe
Illinois Native Americans by in60Learning.com
Smoke Eaters by Sean Grigsby
Timekeepers by Simon Garfield

Whoops. Nothing this month!

How was your month?

January 2018 Report

My numbers aren’t as strong as I hoped to kick off this year, particularly the writing. I honestly don’t understand why it’s so low — on the plus side, I’ve slept more lately than usual (unscheduled sleep, mostly, but that’s beside the point). Still, plenty of entertaining reads, which is the important thing.

Anyway, on to the more interesting stuff…Here’s what happened here in January.

Books/Novels/Novellas Read/Listened to:

Operation: Endgame Simple Genius Heirs with Christ
4 Stars 2 1/2 Stars 3 Stars
Love Story, With Murders Laughing Eyes All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault
4 Stars 2 Stars 4 Stars
Beneath the Sugar Sky Paddle Your Own Canoe (Audiobook) Where Night Stops
5 Stars 2 Stars 4 Stars
Faith: Hollywood & Vine God without Passions: a Primer The Falls
3 Stars 3 Stars 4 Stars
Orphan X The Unbelievable Story of How I Met Your Mother Faith: Hollywood & Vine
3.5 Stars 3 Stars 3 Stars
Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord Silence The Dying Place
3 Stars 3 Stars 4 Stars
The Bomb Maker            
3.5 Stars            

Still Reading:

Volume 9: Sermons to the Church Sanctification Like a Champion

The few books I’ve managed to post about:

Book Challenge Progress:

Angel's Guilty Pleasures Simple Genius by David Baldacci, Scott Brick
All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner
Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman
The Falls by Ian Rankin
Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz
The Bomb Maker by Thomas Perry (link to come)

Laughing Eyes by Haya Magner, Miri Leshem Peli
Where Night Stops by Douglas Light
The Unbelievable Story of How I Met Your Mother by Preston Randall
Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord by Dennis Malley
All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault by James Alan Gardner
Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman
God without Passions A Primer: A Practical and Pastoral Study of Divine Impassibility by Samuel Renihan
Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz
Silence (Audiobook) by Thomas Perry, Michael Kramer

Laughing Eyes by Haya Magner, Miri Leshem Peli
Where Night Stops by Douglas Light
The Unbelievable Story of How I Met Your Mother by Preston Randall
Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord by Dennis Malley
Operation: Endgame by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

✔ Read a self published book: Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord by Dennis Malley

How was your month?

While I Was Reading 2018 Challenge

All right . . . one more.

The blog While I Was Reading (great name, btw), is running a challenge this year, here are the categories:

  • Read a book that takes place in one day.
  • Read a memoir or biography of a musician you like.
  • Read a collection of poetry.
  • Read an audio book with multiple narrators.
  • Read a self published book.
  • Read a book you received as a gift.
  • Read a book about a historical event you’re interested in (fiction or non).
  • Read a book written by an author from the state where you grew up.
  • Read a book recommended by one of your parents (in-laws count).
  • Read a book with your favorite food in the title.
  • Read a book with a child narrator.
  • Read a book you chose based on the cover.

Details/sign up/etc. are here at this page.

I’ll be tracking my reads here or you can see the posts about the books here.