“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the
way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture
because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all
mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret
whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”
must have driven this way countless times, and yet he had no memory of the
scenery. He must have been so caught up in the day's agenda, and arriving
punctually at their destination, that the land beyond the car had been no more
than a wash of one green, and a backdrop of one hill. Life was very different
when you walked through it.”
When I started reading e-books on my iPad, I noticed sentences
and paragraphs underlined in dots. An e-reader feature that confused me when I
first saw it, I learned those dots indicated passages that readers often highlighted. Passages
that perhaps defined a character or touched on the book's theme (or both). But also, passages that spoke directly to me, the reader, provoking two words to flash across my mind. Yes,
So every once in a while, I’m going to share some of my
favorites. Hope the words seep into your world as they have mine. And to start, what better than a passage about words?
"There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic."
The novel opens here: From the air, the village of Santa Cecilia appears in the shape of a woman lying down. If you’d been a pilot flying over it—on your way to Germany of Africa or some other place to drop bombs—you’d have noticed how the main road forms a kind of spine leading to a round piazza, where green trees fan out like hair over the hills, and four narrow roads grow into limbs at both ends. One of the woman’s arms cradles a cluster of white stone houses; the other stretches lazily into fields, in a way that suggests she is resting. Her legs straddle farms and orchards and a few scattered vineyards. She bends her knee at a curve just before an olive grove. If you’d been a pilot—young, maybe, one of the thousands of boys soaring over every week—you’d have had a woman’s figure on your mind anyway, and you’d have longed to land in this place, to hide with her from Hitler and Russia and the passo romano, and to lose yourself in the parts of her body you can only see up close.
In this brilliant passage, we are transported to an Italian village on the cusp of war. In the spring of 1943, most of the men have gone to fight. Except Vito, who falls obsessively in love with Maddalena, the youngest daughter of a prominent family. Vito caters to his mentally ill mother, is gangly and goofy, and thought of as a mama's boy. Maddalena is young, naive and unsure of her life's direction, but falls for Vito's sensitivity and kindness. She has gumption and determination, and is perhaps more inclined to love him because her family considers him a joke. When war intervenes, her family flees to the country while he stays in the village. Both are changed by war and on her return, she must choose love or family obligation. A bittersweet tale of love, sacrifice and duty, A Kiss From Maddalena is a masterfully written and stunning novel.
I come from the village of Opi in Abruzzo, perched on the spine of Italy. As long as anyone remembers, our family kept sheep. We lived and died in Opi and those who left the mountain always came to ruin. “They died with strangers, Irma,” my mother said over and over in her last illness, gasping between bouts of bloody coughing that soaked our rags as fast as I could clean them. “Your great-grandfather died in the snow with Frenchmen. Why?”
Irma Vitale is a young Italian seamstress at the end of the nineteenth century. With her mother gone and her father drinking too much, she leaves her beloved Italian village and sails across the ocean, hoping to find a new life in America and her older brother in Cleveland. But the voyage is rough; she is beaten and robbed, learning quickly to trust no one. Arriving in New York, she scrapes together enough money to eat and hop a train west.
In Cleveland she finds not her brother, but unexpected friendship. Yet tragedy finds her again. Encouraged by a caring woman offering medical treatment to immigrants, Irma transforms her pain into a determination to help others. No longer a shy, guarded girl, she develops into a strong, courageous figure whose heart and resolve would make her mother proud. The characters were richly drawn and Schoenewaldt weaves conflict and tension masterfully, with gritty details of what life was really like for immigrants during this tenuous time in America's history.
To prepare for our 2013 summer spontaneity tour, I packed hardbacks and paperbacks, downloaded e-books to my iPad and audio books through Audible. Between books, journals and even an author talk, I had a literary and adventurous five weeks.
A few days ago I finished Anthony Marra's brilliant A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I'd started listening to it on audio before we left and while we traveled, stole minutes on a beach walk and in the car.
Marra's debut is an intense novel with stunning language that deserves a careful read. From the first sentence, "On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones," I was immediately catapulted to war-torn Chechnya. By the end of the first page I gasped out loud at both the images laid out before me and the language that painted the scene.
Marra's characters are damaged beyond belief, flawed and real and searching for truth. There's Havaa, the child who carries a suitcase full of souvenirs she might one day need, Sonja, the doctor who runs a bombed-out hospital and is obsessed with finding her disappeared sister, and Akhmed, a man who wants to save Havaa from the men who took her father. There are others, too, a writer whose son has betrayed his village, a nurse with a sharp wit and evil tongue, and a wife on the brink of madness.
This multi-layered tale of survival and betrayal has received stellar reviews, bookseller recommendations and interviews, made several bestseller lists and the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel short list.