In defense of letters… in cursive

I’m gonna sit write down and write myself a letter
And make believe it came from you.

There are very bright kids afoot in this techno-paradise of a world who can’t read handwriting. I think it’s best not to get started on what an aberration I believe that to be, or on the fact that one of the most respected teachers I know wonders, with less cynicism than you would imagine, if the company that brought us the iPad is the anti-Christ. All arguments for the valuable boost to brain development, thought processes, and hand-eye coordination that cursive provides aside, you can decide that one on your own. I think it’s fair to say, though, that the techno-genie is out of the bottle for good.

That discussion about cursive coincided with a trip down memory lane. I was looking through a box of photos when I found the last two notes my treasured Auntie Anna wrote me, just months before she passed unexpectedly. She was my father’s baby sister, she lived on the other side of the country, and for years we never saw her at all.

But she wrote letters that my father, who wanted me to know his distant siblings, encouraged me to read. And on those few occasions during my growing up years when I actually got to see her in person, I already knew her, just as I did my other aunties and uncles.

Soon after email began encroaching on every aspect of our lives, “real” letters became the object of derision—”snail mail.” The magic of stuffing correspondence into a mailbox, from whence it could somehow reach any destination near or far and, it should be noted, record the history of humankind, sadly disappeared. Now that we’ve joined the 21st Century, most of us don’t even find bills in our mailboxes. To make matters worse, despite the ubiquitous coverage of our mobile phones and their ability to send and receive email, we’ve truncated communication even more with texting—for which we don’t even write out words. There’s no longer any mystery to receiving a package—it’s what you ordered from Amazon.

R U home?
Is anyone?

For centuries, letter writing was the link that held loved ones together, even after the invention of the telephone. More than that, letters held the key to understanding historic events and human behavior. Letters helped to keep our soldiers’ heads and hearts whole through far too many wars on foreign soil and our own. They built relationships, word by carefully and lovingly chosen word. They congratulated, expressed sorrow, passed the news of the day, kept families together, inspired and revealed, said “thank you” or “with love.” They shared photos. They contained surprises. they instructed and advised.

They told our stories.

Is all of that lost? Have we become so blasé that we no longer think deeply enough about our complicated lives—or, more important, the lives of those we care about—to write down and share our thoughts with them? To want earnestly to hear about their complicated lives?

Although I don’t have any of their letters, I still treasure the few things I have written in my parents’ own hand—birthday cards, recipes, the travel diary my parents kept. I read what they’ve written and they leap off the page at me, as if they were right here in this room. You don’t get that in an email, or even a phone call, folks—much less a text. Your hand-writing is all your own, and a hand-written letter is precious; it is something that stays.

Lately, I’ve started writing an occasional letter. The response to the first I sent to a friend made me feel so good that I’m making a conscious effort to write more.

In cursive.

Want to hear the great Billy Williams sing the tune? Here’s the link

Roman holiday

I’ve been sitting here tonight with Hubby and Miss Pup enjoying Roman Holiday for the umpteenth time. It never loses its luster. If you need reasons to love it, I’ll give you three, in no particular order:

Rome
Audrey Hepburn
Gregory Peck

Although “iconic” has become so overused as to be almost meaningless, Roman Holiday is replete with scenes that truly do seem iconic to me. After all, this is the movie that introduced not only Audrey Hepburn, but also the Vespa, to the rest of the world. And talk about impact: it gives me shivers when Hepburn’s princess rounds that dark corner to return to her “real” life, as Peck’s reporter, stricken with grief, watches helplessly from the car. More than 60 years later, I still fantasize about having that jaunty Italian haircut.

One of the things I’ve always loved about TCM is the back story, and Roman Holiday’s is fascinating. You should check it out on the TCM website.

When we had our own Roman holiday a few years ago, the streets were crowded with tourists, our time was limited, and it was difficult to get good pictures. I do, however, have photos of an extraordinary and memorable lunch we had, in a charming little restaurant, La Buca di Ripetta,  just outside the Piazza del Popolo. I’m sharing them with you tonight.

 

 

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Photos: Cover—gnocchi in a sauce infused with zucchini blossoms. Below, the menu, the wine we chose, vegetable fritters with aceto balsamico, lamb chops and potatoes.

Adriana Trigiani’s Italian-Americans

I was thrilled to receive a pre-publication copy of Adriana Trigiani’s new book, Kiss Carlo, which goes on sale June 20. This post is more of an homage than a review. I’ve loved Trigiani’s books since my cousin Nina first handed me Lucia, Lucia in 2004. Since then,  I’ve read them all.

Suffice it to say that I can relate. Take those wedding reception sandwiches in wax paper bags that Trigiani describes in Queen of The Big Time, which is set in Roseto, in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. The only real memory I have of my grandmother is being in her kitchen in Maine, with  all the other Italian women from Smith Crossing, as they made and packaged sandwiches in wax paper bags for my Auntie Anna’s wedding.

Trigiani is a masterful storyteller. Over the years, I’ve followed the immigrants she writes about faithfully, as they left their tiny, impoverished villages to build new lives in the US, in locations as diverse as Minnesota, Manhattan, Hollywood, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Roseto, of course. You get to know Trigiani’s complicated characters through big screen-worthy dialogue, within a carefully honed historic and cultural context. Expect to laugh out loud at, fall in love with, get mad at, and cry over them. These are characters you miss when the book ends.

One of the things I love most about Adriana Trigiani’s books is that they have real-life inspirations. The Shoemaker’s Wife, for example, was based on her grandparents‘ story (the link is to a video trailer you will love). At the same time, her novels reveal the important mark that Italian-Americans have made on this country, what they endured, and the artistry and traditions they contributed (see her in the PBS tour de force, The Italian-Americans). The big, noisy Sunday dinners, the church at the center of family and community, the downright biblical family feuds may seem stereotypical to an outsider, but we insiders understand that they reflect what we grew up with… and, for good or ill, crawled out of.

Kiss Carlo is set largely in one of the nation’s most iconic Italian-American communities, South Philly. It’s a BIG story—a saga, in fact, through which Trigiani has wound what may seem an unlikely Shakespearean thread. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Apart from my humble opinion that everything you need to know about life can be found in Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, the play that figures in the plot, is a tale of masquerade and discovery. Throughout Kiss Carlo and all of Trigiani’s work, it seems to me, runs the theme of first and second-generation Italian-Americans struggling to find out who they really are and who they can become when they are finally confident and comfortable in their New World skin. As I said before, I can relate. I’m sure my parents could have, too.

Kiss Carlo was a great read. I think you’ll like it.

Photo: My paternal grandparents, Maria Grazia and Francesco, second and third from the left, were immigrants from the village of Centrache, in Calabria. They settled in the tiny paper mill town of Rumford, ME. They had 14 children—all but one born in this country—and many, many grandchildren. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Islands in the laguna

For a daydreaming Pisces, a novel with a sense of place as strong as any of its characters is irresistible. Writers from the American south have always been very good at this—Gail Godwin, Pat Conroy, Flannery O’Connor, and the like.

Place is typically very important to ongoing mystery series are as well. My personal favorites are Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series, set in Venice, Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels, which take place in and around Montreal, and the Commissario Montalbano series by Andrea Camillero, set in Sicily.  Each of these series is far beyond a collection of simple detective stories; they are highly literate, with both principle and supporting characters who are impeccably fleshed out, who grow and change as the series progress. You get to know, respect, and probably love them as you read one after another. Tip: If you are interested in any of these, do read them in order!

I’ve just finished Earthly Remains, the latest in the Commissario Brunetti series. The story, which takes place on Sant’Erasmo and Burano, islands in the Venetian lagoon, brought back some lovely memories of our 2012 excursion to Murano, Burano, and Torcello.  I’m sharing those memories for my own selfish pleasure as much as for yours.

Notes:
(1) If I were doing the trip again, I would skip Murano. If you read this book, you’ll find out why.

(2) Both Brunetti and Montalbano have been transformed into fabulously entertaining TV series—the first is, ironically, a German production and the second, an Italian one. You can enjoy them in the US, as well as many other European offerings, with a modestly priced subscription to the streaming service MHZ Choice.

 

Confession is good for the soul

I always used to finish books even when they weren’t hitting the mark. In the last few years, however, I’ve felt freer to abandon a book, or lay it aside for another time. The first chapter or two may not grab me. I may develop a knee-jerk distaste for the characters or quality of the prose. Every reader has been there. But sometimes it’s not about any of those things—it’s about where I am, or the rest of the world is, at a point in time.

Among my friends are many very bright people who are highly serious readers. When my head-set is right, I can thoroughly enjoy something as meaty, dense, and character-driven as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. But it can be hard to take on the angst and dysfunction of a set of fictional characters, wrapped up in their own confused heads or overwhelmed by what they can’t control, if you’re on tenterhooks yourself.

Few really fine books are on my “abandoned’ list, but it may shock you that I never finished All the Light We Cannot See or Suite Française. Both of these books are masterful, full of brilliant, heartbreaking prose and the kind of tension that keeps you reading into the wee hours. The problem for me, at the time I started these, was the depth of the agony that lay therein, coupled with the fact that a lot was going on in our own lives. I was an English major; I acknowledge the life-affirming aspect of tragedy. But because I engage so fully in what I read, there are times when I need something less gut-wrenching, less historically or socially or culturally important. Less painful. Yes, we read to learn, to grow, to empathize…  life is not a fairy tale. But sometimes, we need to read to escape, find comfort, or even [she said unabashedly] to have fun.

I value any writer’s ability to create a well-told tale that, while not devoid of worthwhile life lessons, can lift me out of almost any malaise. I love a master story-teller, who weaves a tale so skillfully that I can get to know the characters by walking with them, not by being inside their heads, soaking up all of their fears and darkness and  character flaws. Perhaps that’s because in real life, I’ve learned to judge people more by what they do than what they say—which, I can assure you, was not easy.

It’s fashionable these days to talk about “meeting people where they are.” I’ve no doubt that this expression will ultimately go the route of “low hanging fruit” and other such catch phrases that end up overused—and misused—to the point of meaninglessness. But books, well chosen, actually can meet you where you are, when you most need them to.

Comments and shares welcome. More on favorite writers in future posts!