Book Review: The Generosity of Strangers

Thomas Antonaccio heard stories all his life about his mother’s childhood experiences in the village of Fornelli in central Italy. A few weeks ago, he published “The Generosity of Strangers: When War came to Fornelli” which retells many of those stories in the first person, through the voice of Lucia, the little girl who lived them.

Lucia is introduced as a young child with a fascination for the simple life in her rural village. She loved catching butterflies, and loved to hear her father play the concertina and sing. When World War II breaks out, taking many people away from the village and bringing others in, life changes dramatically. Lucia’s story let’s us see the historical events from a new perspective.

The storytelling is simple and suits the character of Lucia. The book is described as a children’s non-fiction history book. It would be a good way to introduce children to significant events of 20th century history in Italy. It is a fairly quick read, available on Amazon for Kindle.

Book Review: Strega Nona’s Gift

The most recent in Tomie dePaola’s long series of Strega Nona books, Strega Nona’s Gift (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2011) describes the many festivals connected to Christmas celebration in Italy. In her Calabrian village, Strega Nona cooks her way through the season, cheering up the townspeople when they need it with her own happy magic. Big Anthony wants to help, but can’t seem to stay out of trouble. By the end of the celebration, though, he sets thing right.

This beautiful picture book is a great way to share Italian Christmas traditions with young children. The colorful and varied illustrations are in classic dePaola style, as charming to adults as to children.

Tomie dePaola has written and/or illustrated nearly 250 books during a career of more than 40 years. He is likely the best known Italian-American writer for children, and in 2011 was honored with the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his contribution to children’s literature. Strega Nona: An Old Tale Retold, published in 1975, won the Caldecott Award in 1976, and several other Strega Nona books round out the story of the old lady who uses her magic to take away warts, give people good dreams, and many other kindnesses.

So early bird Christmas shoppers, this is your heads-up. If you know young children you want to share Italian traditions with, this book may be the perfect opportunity.

Book Review: Stumbling Through Italy

Niall Allsop and his wife Kay of Bath, England, began vacationing in Italy after making friends with Vittorio and Ivano Capetti, owners of an Italian restaurant in Bath. Their initial forays took them to Tuscany, but they came to their senses soon enough, and began to explore the Italian south.

I like the way these people travel: Not rushing from monument to museum, but making friends, meeting people. Many of these people happen to own or work in restaurants, because like most of us headed for Italy, they love the food. But their secret to successful travel in Italy is not just making friends with the waiters. It is also adapting to the rhythm of Italian life–which means taking the early afternoon ‘siesta’ along with the rest of the country. It’s learning to speak a bit of the language, at least. It’s driving like an Italian when driving in Italy.

I enjoyed wandering through Sicily, Sardinia, Naples, Apulia, and Calabria with them, and previewing some travel experiences I’d like to have myself. They found the trulli houses of Alberobello trulli disappointing, and delighted in the performance of Euripides’ play Ecuba in the classical Greek theatre in Siracusa. They discovered, from one of their hosts, a recipe for orange-coffee liquor, which they kindly included in the book. They were willing to be sidetracked from the usual travel highlights by people and places not found in the tourist guidebooks.

Especially helpful–a chapter on Italian language tips for the novice, and a chapter on driving in Italy for the brave, though some might say foolhardy.

Niall Allsop’s writing is more serviceable than brilliant, but he leads us on an enjoyable stroll, a passeggiata through southern Italy, which you might enjoy, as I did.

Book Review? It’s your turn!

The fourth Friday each month is when I usually post a book review of something related to southern Italy. But this week, it’s your turn!

What has been your favorite book dealing with or set in southern Italy? Please share in the comments section. Any genre is welcome–fact or fiction, memoir, children’s books, poetry…. do tell!

I’d love your recommendations for books I might review. And after you’ve shared, enjoy the summer weekend with a good book.

Book Review: Wrestling with the Devil

Tony Russo was ten when his family put him on a boat in Naples, Italy with a suitcase full of salami and cheese, headed to America. Leaving behind his parents, brother and sister, grandparents, and the village that was his world, he arrived in New York to stay with relatives–strangers to him, mostly–who didn’t have the means to take him in.

Russo’s struggle to survive in this alien world, his longing for his family, and his determination to be reunited with them, all draw the reader into his story. As Russo fought his way through his junior high years, a coach saw his potential as a wrestler, and changed the direction of his life. How did this boy go from the hills near Naples to a Hall of Fame? Read his story!

Russo’s memoir, capably co-written with his daughter, Tonya Russo Hamilton, will engage those who love stories of overcoming adversity, as well as those who value athletics and the character-building influence of good coaching. You might enjoy the publisher’s story about the book signing at the book release party in Russo’s hometown of Newberg, Oregon.

I’ve written in previous blog posts about Italian-Americans and their contributions to American life. This book continues that theme, and I recommend it to you!

Book Review: The Espresso Break by Barbara Zaragoza

First off, I wish I’d had this book the first time I visited Naples! I will definitely be using it the next time. I’ve looked in at Barbara Zaragoza’s blogs now and then: The Espresso Break and Naples (Napoli) Guide, and I’m glad to have her info about Naples compiled in book form.

The subtitle promises “Tours and Nooks of Naples, Italy and Beyond”, and I would say the book delivers. The major highlights are covered, in greater detail than many books offer, and then come the hidden corners of Naples that you would never find on your own, like Mauro the glove-maker’s factory, and Japanese restaurant recommendations.

Barbara has also included some practical travel information about safety, driving, staying healthy, and using public transportation. Her advice on greeting Italians is spot on: A little Buon giorno will take you a long way in Italy!

The great detail and variety of information make up for the lack of color photos, as I always appreciate color in a guidebook.

After seeing nearly three pages devoted to the subject of trash in Naples, I laughed out loud at Barbara’s defense of the city’s dirtiness. Why is the city so dirty? “Neapolitans have preserved so much of their past that the buildings almost by necessity tend to blend into the natural look and feel of the ancient ruins.” Naples is just natural, and she suggests that other cities seem un-naturally clean. Well, my mom and I had a good chuckle over this, but I must say, please don’t let the city’s reputation for dirt and grittiness stop you from making a visit! I compare it to the gritty vibrancy of lower Manhattan–a sign of life!

The book includes lots of detail on the ancient sites around Naples and legends connected to them. She also includes a section called the “Odious Women Tour” which includes goddesses, queens, prostitutes, and revolutionaries.

Considering that many travel guides offer just a few pages to the entire south of Italy, this book is a treasure for visitors to the Naples region. If you have a day, or several, to spend in Naples, this book will help you fill your time well.

Book Review: That Summer in Sicily

In this atmospheric, evocative memoir, Marlena de Blasi draws us into a mysterious Sicilian villa, a world apart and a world with its own secrets. Ultimately, its own love story.

De Blasi went to Sicily with an assignment in the summer of 1995: Write an article about Sicily’s interior, for a scholarly magazine. She and her Italian husband venture forth, with appointments and plans in place, for several weeks in the south. There, they hit a wall of silence. She was stood up for every appointment. In the heat of summer, baking in the Sicilian highlands, the assignment was abandoned. They decided to seek a couple of days’ refuge, an inn or pensione, and rest befor returning to Venice.

A policeman directs them to Tosca, the owner of the Villa Donnafugata, the house of the fleeing women. A world apart, where black-garbed women chant while washing their laundry against stones. Where crenillated towers and juliet balconies stand guard over wheatfields and goatpens that would have looked the same a hundred or a thousand years ago.

And there, intending to leave nearly every day, but drawn or induced or wooed to stay for weeks, de Blasi hears Tosca’s story. You should hear it too, and I can only urge you to read this book.

I read it during the first couple of days of a vacation to the tropics, and I’m glad I did not have a work schedule to maintain, as it would have gone by the wayside for the higher priority of Tosca’s story. Her transformation from nine-year-old starving peasant girl to mistress of a villa supporting dozens of laborers who are her closest friends is a journey worth taking.

BOOK REVIEW: Stolen Figs

Have you ever wanted to visit the ‘old country’, wherever that may be for you–the land where your parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents, spent their childhood?

So did author Mark Rotella. After years of listening to his family’s stories of life in Calabria, he convinced his reluctant father to accompany him to the village of Gimigliano, for just a day. When they unexpectedly connect with distant relatives, Rotella becomes immersed in the life he previously only heard about, returning to Calabria again and again.

A memoir and travel story combined, Stolen Figs lets us share Rotella’s discoveries in clear, inviting language. He shares the flavor of his experiences–the aroma of homemade soprasetta, the taste of fresh artichokes on pizza, the tingling fear of driving unfamiliar backroads that seem hostile.

Rotella had the advantage of speaking Italian as he ventured through Calabria, but still ran into communication issues with the Calabrian dialect. He also describes a visit to a Greek-speaking village, an area mentioned in last week’s post.

I enjoyed his adventures, and recommend his book–a mini-escape to Calabra.

Book Excerpt: On the Spine of Italy

I knew my research in Italy would take me to Abruzzo, and Harry Clifton’s book “On the Spine of Italy: A Year in the Abruzzi” (Macmillan, 1999) fell into my hands at the right moment, to give me a taste of the region I was so eager to know better.

Clifton is an Irish poet. He and his wife went to a village in Abruzzo to spend a summer writing. In the end, they stayed a full year, and this book chronicles their experience of village life. I enjoyed reading it, and it stoked my interest in the region, although my visit of a few weeks would not compare to a year-long stay. I believe the book is now out of print, but it is available used from online booksellers.

Clifton describes the village at Christmas time:

“The village, in its small way, was preparing for Christmas. The shop had introduced a freezer, full of packaged vegetables, hamburgers, french fries, and fish fingers, to internationalize the local cuisine. It had a glass display case, containing cheeses and cold cuts of meat, clinically administered by the women in starched white. The co-operativa, as it stood now, would have done justice to a hospital.

“They had introduced a small stand of Christmas gifts and confectionery, a smaller and far poorer version of the extravaganzas we had witnessed in Perugia. There were bottles of Spumante and Amaro, the bitter digestivo favoured in the Abruzzo. There were sundry mechanical toys, times to autodestruct a week after they had been bought. And there was a big assortment of giftwrapped panettones, the soft fruity cakes filled with jam or chocolate that symbolize the Christmas season in Italy. We bought some for Silvio’s family, as a fence-mending gesture.

“In the bar, the men played cards obsessively. the lights were on until two in the morning, as they engaged in gigantic poker sessions. As it was Christmas, they were betting heavily and playing for real stakes. We knew villagers who had been literally ruined, dispossessed of their property and the shirts off their backs, by such sessions. The late night shouting and roaring across the road had plenty of reality behind it. But anything, especially in winter, was better than boredom, and cards were the one thing in the lives of the village men that lifted the burden of empty time off their backs.

“A week before Christmas, a truck arrived from the commune of Poggio, with a string of coloured lights. In the course of one dark afternoon, they were draped over the solitary pine in the piazza. In the evening, switched on, it became our communal Christmas tree. Meanwhile, in the church, Gegeto had constructed a huge elaborate crib out of moss and mountain rocks–a miniature landscape threaded with electric lights, through which wandered shepherds, wise kings and animals, in the direction of the Holy Family. Until Christmas night, this massive construction went unwitnessed by almost everyone in the village. After Christmas, it was almost immediately dismantled. It was a labour of love. The lights on the pine tree, which were the work of the state, were still there the following May.”

I enjoyed Clifton’s book, which doesn’t identify the specific village, but includes the highs and lows of village life in rural southern Italy.

Merry Christmas to all my readers!

Book Review: The Stones of Naples

Sometimes I think that only a nerd like me would be fascinated by a book subtitled “Church Building in Angevin Italy, 1266-1343”. But I’m glad to know there are enough nerds like me around that the author, Caroline Bruzelius, and the publisher, Yale University Press, decided to produce it.

The Stones of Naples is filled with stories of why and how various churches were built in Naples during the first three generations of Angevin rule there, 1266 to 1343. The social history is tied to the architectural history to answer questions I didn’t even know I had! And I have plenty of questions about these Angevins–for some reason their story resonates with me.

The book is academic, filled with minutiae about builders and stone, about bishops and their political persuasions, about monastic influences on the royal family members, and their influence on one another. There are several appendices, and pages of end notes, a lengthy bibliography, and detailed index.

But the academic burden (which it might seem to some readers) is lightened by a few other inclusions. Right up front there are maps, a city plan of Naples, and a genealogical chart of the Angevins. The large-format book contains many photos (too few in color, but there are many) and illustrations of church floor plans, construction elements, and decor. And the cover is beautiful, featuring detail from the Tavola Strozzi, showing a view of Naples in 1465 commemorating the Aragonese victory.

Although Naples itself figures heavily in the Angevin church construction, locations throughout southern Italy are mentioned or discussed.

I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in southern Italy of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It helps me understand the events and the atmosphere of the period, and develop a clearer picture of medieval Naples.