Homing pigeons, historical novels, and Italy

In the author’s note of a historical novel I read this week, I learned that a homing pigeon named G. I. Joe saved the village of Calvi Vecchia, and the British soldiers who had wrested the village from German occupiers, during World War II.

G.I. Joe received the Dickin Medal for gallantry. He died in 1961, and is now displayed at Fort Monmouth, NJ.

Calvi Vecchia, about 25 km northwest of Caserta, was occupied by the Germans, and Allied air forces were requested to help dislodge them. British infantry were able to liberate the village ahead of schedule but weren’t able to radio the allies’ airfield to call off their attack.

G. I. Joe was released with the message, and carried it to the airfield twenty miles away in just twenty minutes, arriving as the planes were preparing to take off — just in time to prevent the bombing of Calvi Vecchia.

Award-winning author Kate Breslin features homing pigeons in her WWI novel, Far Side of the Sea. Her story, set in 1918, takes British Lieutenant Colin Mabry, struggling to recover from shell shock and injuries, back into France to help the French girl, Jewel, who had saved his life the prior year. With twists and turns like the Amalfi coast road, the plot pulled me along as Colin met Jewel’s sister Johanna. Together they searched for Jewel and her father, encountered spies from all sides, and questioned who they could trust. While Johanna longs to find the only family she has left, Colin seeks God’s purpose and plan for his life after military duty. Breslin’s colorful writing, and the satisfying conclusion, make this a book I recommend!

The book itself has no link to The Italian South, but I was intrigued by Breslin’s mention of G. I Joe in the back matter. I’m always delighted to find tidbits of southern Italy in unexpected places!

Book Review: Tino and the Pomodori

Tino and the Pomodori coverTino and the Pomodori by Tonya Russo Hamilton builds an engaging children’s story around the growing, harvesting, selling, and eating of home-grown tomatoes. Equally engaging is the introduction of simple words and phrases in Italian.

Tino works eagerly with his grandfather to plant and tend their tomato garden. The life cycle of tomatoes is described in the course of the story, from planting seeds taken from the previous year’s tomatoes, to celebrating the harvest at the end of the season. Hamilton takes a more practical than scientific approach to growing tomatoes, so don’t expect a botany lesson–but sit back and enjoy Tino’s excitement, and the loving guidance of his grandparents, as they grow and eat their delicious pomodori.

The watercolor illustrations by Britta Nicholson are simple and rustic, suited to the story. The book is just out this month (June 2014) from Gemelli Press, and would make a lovely gift for a budding gardener or a young Italophile-in-training.

This is Hamilton’s second book. She wrote Wrestling with the Devil with her father, a memoir of his immigration from Italy and wrestling/coaching career. See my review here. Tino and the Pomodori is also adapted from her father’s early life in Italy.

Book Review: 100 Places in Italy…

100 placesSusan Van Allen’s love for Italy has taken her from the knobby toe of the boot to its mountainous cuff, and this guide delivers a kick in the pants to get you planning your own next adventure there. 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go is in its second edition, and is certainly not limited to women’s interests–but it reads like listening to your girlfriend’s advice on what made her trip to Italy so fantastic.

In another sense, it’s a great reference book because it’s divided into practical sections, sections like “The Divine” (Italy is full of that!), Gardens, Beaches, Indulge Your Tastebuds, and Shopping. Other sections inspire you to actively engage the Italian culture, including Active Adventures, Cooking Classes, and Learn Italian Crafts and Culture. And with many chapters, Van Allen includes advice on where to eat, or places to stay, to make your visit a “Golden Day”, one of those travel experiences you’ll never forget.

Van Allen incorporates the advice of other Italophile writers, too, and includes appendices on travel, budget, and packing tips. There are frequent tips for recommended reading, and references to helpful websites throughout the book.

The book covers all of Italy, not just the south, but I’ve chosen a couple of paragraphs (from the section on Active Adventures, and a chapter on Hiking) for you, as a sample of Van Allen’s writing:

“My favorite coastal hike is the Sentiero degli Dei (Path of the Gods) above the Amalfi Coast. Here steep paths, that were once used for mules to bring goods to the mountain villages, take you through lemon groves, forests, and vineyards. You get great views of the candy-colored villages below that stretch out to the tantalizing sea horizon.

“But even with a map, parts of the Sentieri degli Dei are not easy to follow, so to the rescue comes Francesco Carpegna, an energetic, silver-haired ex-New Yorker who’s lived in Positano for twenty years and created a company called Walking with the Gods. He can be booked to lead your hike and along the way he’ll fill you in on the many legends that surround this amazing stretch.”

I’m glad I bought the book in e-book version. It will be easy to take with me on my next adventure to Italy!

Book Review: The Love-Artist by Jane Alison

The-Love-Artist-201x300Last year I enrolled in a MOOC. What’s that?? A Massive Open Online Course, and there are thousands of them out there, taught by university professors, completely free, and just about any topic you can imagine. I chose a course on historical fiction, and one of the assigned readings was The Love Artist, featuring the Roman poet Ovid.

The subject intrigued me because Ovid was born in Sulmona, one of my favorite spots in Italy, and I wondered if his hometown played at all in the story. In that, I was disappointed.

I’m not much of a student of ancient Rome, so cannot judge the authenticity of Alison’s depiction of the setting. Her prose is lyrical and lovely, appropriate to the time in language, and evokes a mystical sense that works with the story, which re-imagines Ovid’s inspiration for his (now lost) tragic play Medea. Enchanted by Xenia, a mysterious woman he meets on the shores of the Black Sea, Ovid returns with her to Rome, where his writing career and personal life are bound up with Emperor Augustus and his family tumult.

Statue of Ovid in Sulmona, Italy, his birthplace. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Statue of Ovid in Sulmona, Italy, his birthplace. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The story itself is very slow-moving, and I’m not convinced that Alison took advantage of the natural drama in the story she tells. Not a book that would keep me up reading until two or three in the morning. Perhaps readers who thrive on stories of the Roman Empire would find it more engaging.

I’d be interested in the opinions of others who have read it, so please comment below!

Book review: Juliet: A Novel (and a good reading bonus)

Juliet book reviewI sometimes (ok, often) have insomnia, and last night when I woke up at three, I opened my Nook and continued reading a novel I have carried around a lot the past few days, snatching a few pages here and there. At about 5:15 a.m. I closed the Nook and breathed a great sigh of satisfaction, having finished the book. Juliet, by Anne Fortier.

Italian-born Julie Jacobs, orphaned with her twin sister at age three, and adopted by an aunt, wanders a bit aimlessly through life teaching Shakespeare workshops for kids. She’s 25 now, and on the unexpected death of Aunt Rose, she is further shocked by the news that Aunt Rose everything to her sister Janice. Their gardener and cook, Umberto, takes Julie aside to reveal that Aunt Rose has secretly left her an envelope containing a key to a safe deposit box in Siena, and clues to her shrouded past. Oh, and her real name: Giulietta Tolomei. The key is her connection to her parents who died in Italy, and a letter from Aunt Rose suggests that a great treasure which she should try to find.

Leaving behind her crass, gloating sister, Julie heads to Italy, becoming entwined in her own ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story while discovering family connections she could never have imagined. She’s not sure what the treasure is, but it’s clear that other people are interested in it, too, and the pursuit becomes a dangerous business.

The characters leapt off the page at me, and it’s not simply a re-hash of Romeo and Juliet, but a new and interesting story. There are lots of R & J references, though it doesn’t require great familiarity with Shakespeare’s version to enjoy it. I loved the back-and-forth play of the modern story with the historical, revealed as Julie discovers it. There seemed to be some minor issues of coordinating the passage of time in a couple of scenes, but overall, I enjoyed it a lot!

BONUS: Maybe you are more familiar with the Goodreads website than I am, but I recently discovered “Listopia” there. It’s under the “Explore” tab on the home page, and when I entered “Italy” in the Listopia search box, I got all kinds of great lists for books about Italy, set in Italy, by Italian authors, and so on. I will definitely use this resource for choosing books to review here, and very likely for other book searching too. Have you used Listopia? Found any great books there?

Book Review: La Bella Lingua by Dianne Hales

bella.comp.inddThe beautiful language. The Italian language is the subject whose story is beautifully told in Dianne Hales’ book, La Bella Lingua. Subtitled “My love affair with Italian, the world’s most enchanting language,” Hales’ book is very thorough in presenting the history and development of today’s Italian.

Most engaging for me were the stories of her  falling in love with Italian, and the research on the book. Her personal experiences transported me to Italy, and brought me into the room for her conversations with various language teachers and experts, historians, and writers.

I also enjoyed learning more about the origins of the Italian language. She definitely prompted me to consider a closer look at Dante, and introduced me to several significant contributors to today’s Italian. I didn’t expect to find Galileo, but there he was. Verdi, Garibaldi, and many others–the famous and infamous–are included.

Perhaps food-related Italian words are most widely known in America–and a chapter is devoted to eating Italian. Other chapters celebrate art, love, and cinema, the Italian way.

For people with an interest in languages and linguistics, this will be a fun read.  For students of Italian, it’s a must. The book includes an index, chapter by chapter bibliography, and a discussion guide with questions. I recommend it!

Can I also encourage you to visit Dianne Hales’ website? Many great features will draw you back to it–Italian food and travel ideas, a blog with language learning helps, resources for teachers and students of Italian language, and a nice introduction to Dianne herself.

The cover of this book really appealed to me because of a dream I had in 2004. I was in Sorrento, studying Italian for two weeks at SorrentoLingue. About ten days into my two weeks there, I had a dream. I was in a boat, one of the colorful fishing boats found in that area, just me and the boatman. I was fishing with pole and line, but instead of trying to catch fish, I was fishing for words. Ever done that? I would reel one in and look at it, the Italian word I had caught, but it wasn’t the one I wanted, so I threw it back. Over and over, I cast my hook into the water but kept bringing in the wrong word. And there on Dianne Hales’ book cover–aside from the Venetian gondola rather than the fishing boat–I saw my dream depicted. And in addition to the book’s contents, the cover is a delightful reminder of my wonderful experience in Sorrento.

Book week: Meet Gino Calabrese

Astrologos.1531aIt’s the fourth Friday of the month, the time I usually post a book review. But not this week.

Instead, I am introducing Gino Calabrese, a phony Seattle astrologer, originally from Little Italy in St. Louis. He’s also a character in the novel I recently finished, now in the hands of a few select beta readers. I’ll be submitting to an agent this fall, after a little more fine tuning.

I predict you’ll like Gino–an adventurous guy with Sicilian roots, whose birthday sailing trip with an Italian cousin lands him somewhere he never expected to be, facing the Black Death, an amorous teenage girl, and 650 years between him and home.

Gino loves ancient history, but he’s a little rusty on the medieval years in Italy, something that might be more helpful in his predicament. And that tattoo his mother didn’t like, the Greek symbol for Gemini? He never imagined the trouble it would cause.

Wish me luck–publishing is a crazy business these days. But I’d love to have you all meet Gino on the printed page someday!

Book giveaway! to celebrate my trip to Italy next month

royalty-free-photo-antique-book-pile-375x500A while back I reviewed Chris Harrison’s  memoir Head over Heel–you can read the review here

I’m making another visit to Italy next month, and to celebrate, I’m giving away my copy of Head over Heel to some lucky blog reader. To enter, please comment, either here on the blog, or on my Facebook page. Tell me where in southern Italy is your favorite place–or the place you dream of going.

Please share the giveaway info with your friends, and good luck!

Book Review: The Irish and English in Italy’s Risorgimento by Mary Jane Cryan

cryan bookIn 2011, in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy–the Risorgimento–author Mary Jane Cryan  produced a book about the Irish and English who participated in the process.

Yes, this is one of those niche interest books–and perhaps a very small niche. Only 200 copies of the book were produced, and they can be ordered from the author. But the book is ideal for uncovering the fine detail desired by, for example, a historical novelist or writer of narrative history.

Perhaps you, like me, were unaware that any Irish or English participated in the unification effort in Italy. The Irish mostly joined forces behind the Roman Catholic church and the pope, whose control of central Italy was threatened, though a few supported Garibaldi. For the English, who for more than a decade had hosted a number of well-known Italian exiles, Garibaldi was a hero.

Cryan describes the experiences of both groups, as documented in personal and official correspondence, news reports and editorials, and other contemporary sources. In addition to key players, Cryan includes the experiences of a wide variety of people who participated in various ways–soldiers, journalists, wives, fund-raisers. The views of these participants, mostly outsiders but actively involved, add color and interest to the book.

Did I say color? There are great color illustrations too!

Cryan’s sources include material brought to light in recent years, and the book has end-notes, appendices, and bibliography.

Mary Jane Cryan

Mary Jane Cryan

Mary Jane Cryan has lived in Italy since 1965. From “About the Author”, Cryan “has been an international educator, journalist, and guidebook writer. She is the recipient of numerous awards for her contributions to historical research and cultural promotion…” Study of the Risorgimento is not new to her; it was the subject of her own doctoral thesis in 1985.

The book is for sale through Cryan’s website, Elegant Etruria, which includes articles on travel, history, and antiquing. She also offers services in travel consultancy and excursions.

Book Week: The Pope Who Quit by Jon M. Sweeney

PopeWhoQuitThose of you who know my interests in history won’t be surprised at all that I was eager to read a book about Pope Celestine V, elected in 1294. And with the recent resignation of Pope Benedict, Celestine’s abdication has been mentioned in news stories, editorials, and blogs around the world.

From the time I first heard of this book, a year or more before its 2012 publication, I felt an affinity with Sweeney. I spent years researching the events surrounding Celestine’s election and resignation, as I’m sure Sweeney did. And considering the wide-ranging sources and research on the subject, it’s not too surprising that we came to slightly different conclusions about some of the characters involved.

The book is essentially a biography of Peter of Morrone, who took the name Celestine as pope. Thorough, well-written, and not too densely academic, I enjoyed reading it very much–burning my Nook late into a few nights to finish it. Little is known about Celestine’s early life, and even up to middle age he was a man of obscurity, seeking a life of isolation. Sweeney presents this unusual life in a well-0rganized yet lively way.

My disappointments came with his presentation of corollary characters: namely, the succeeding pope, Boniface VIII, and the King most directly involved with Celestine, King Charles II of Naples. I admit, I have a bias against Boniface. (I am certainly not alone in this.)

My fists went up in the prologue when Sweeney describes Boniface (Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, prior to becoming pope) as Celestine’s “trusted adviser”. I suppose, technically, this is true. Celestine trusted his advice on various things, and depended on his help in carrying out his desire to resign. But in light of the subsequent betrayal–imprisoning Celestine for the rest of his life–the term “trusted adviser” stuck in my craw.

Then there is the negative portrayal of the king of Naples, Charles II. Here is a weak king, and a man at the mercy of the papacy. An earlier pope had established Charles’ father as “King of Naples” in exchange for fighting some of the papacy’s worldly battles, and his kingdom (which initially included the island of Sicily) was subject to the pope as overlord. Charles II himself spent years as a prisoner of war in those battles. While Sweeney presents Charles as manipulating Celestine, he omits entirely the fact that Charles’s three sons, including his heir, were prisoners in Aragon for the previous five years. Only the pope could confirm a treaty to free them, and by the time Celestine was elected, there had been a vacancy for more than two years in the papacy. The previous pope flatly refused to approve the treaty that both kings involved had agreed to. I view Charles as a man desperate to free his sons, and doing all he can to gain influence with the one man who can help him.

Yes, I know. I’ve slipped from book review to historical rant. As you can see, what happened in history is far from settled, even though the events are long past. The true motivations of those involved are rarely known with certainty, and always subject to nuances of interpretation.

The end notes are thorough and interesting, mentioning numerous of Sweeney’s sources. There is no bibliography or index, but that’s not unusual in a book presented for public rather than scholarly interest. I most appreciate Sweeney bringing Celestine into the public view, more than he has been in a while. And I suppose I should thank the former Pope, Benedict, for his recent resignation which revived the interest in Celestine even more.

The Pope Who Quit is a worthwhile read for anyone with an interest in the thirteenth century, church history, or the medieval Kingdom of Sicily/Kingdom of Naples.