*Book Reviews

The Woman in Red by Diana Giovinazzo, Grand Central Publishing, 2020
384 pages, $28

Review by Stephanie Longo

When one thinks of Giuseppe Garibaldi, chances are that his role as the “father” of the Italian Risorgimento comes to mind. However, in “The Woman in Red,” the debut novel by Diana Giovinazzo, it’s his wife, Anita, who takes center stage.

Ms. Giovinazzo deftly brings Anita and her story to life in this sweeping saga, which begins in Anita’s native Brazil. Using historic records to piece together Anita’s life, Ms. Giovinazzo carefully constructs a world where Anita’s persona is given the opportunity to shine—we see her already bucking traditional female roles in her youth and in her first marriage, allowing the reader the opportunity to grasp how this woman was eventually able to leave everything she knew for the man she loved. Anita’s development is also a highlight of the book— by the time the book closes, the reader understands just how much love can change a person and what lengths someone will go to for true love.

Of course, the key storyline in the story is Anita’s love affair with Giuseppe Garibaldi. The two met in 1839 when he was leading the Brazilian resistance. With his words, “You must be mine,” began a love affair that can be considered one of the great love stories of all time—as “his,” Anita herself participated in the plight to liberate Southern Brazil from Portugal. This experience helped build her own bravery—eventually leading her to fight right alongside her love during struggles in Uruguay and for Italian Unification.

Overall, “The Woman in Red” is an excellent debut for Ms. Giovinazzo. It is all at once entertaining and educational, as well as a wonderful way for readers to meet a lesser-known historic figure whose own life story could very well help influence their own by encouraging others to dig deep within to find courage and bravery.

Daniela Buccilli. What it Takes to Carry. Charlotte,  North Carolina: Main Street Rag, Publishing Company, 2019.

By Theodora D. Patrona

Daniela Buccilli’s craft is words. As a public high school teacher, she strives to instill the love for words in her teenage students and she introduces them to some of the secrets of the art of writing through classes like Academic English and Creative Writing. As a poet, she actively participates in Workshops and has published some of her poems in important reviews. What it Takes to Carry is her debut collection, a slim but vibrant first work, promising of more heart-felt pieces to come.

The ambivalent title What it Takes to Carry is loaded with the stress and strength that one needs to bear the burden and keep afloat. The photo of a rather unhappy young girl with a quizzical expression on the front cover page connects the question the title poses with the female personae. This initial taste of despair and childhood fear is confirmed in the first poem titled “It means Judged by God”, one of Buccilli’s best: “maybe like you//I have been afraid//of the visions//the hungry darkness//my life//that every sentence be a trial” (10). 

Barely surviving in a grey and urban setting, the poet’s voices are often the recipients of violence be it verbal, physical or sexual. The examples are numerous: “He hates my metaphor”, “Alterations”, “There’s no such thing as a hysteric”, “Slut”. On a larger scale, this violence is demonstrated as absolutism, terrorism, exploitation and war as in “Like Cattle”, “in line at the deli before election” and the intense “Capitalist in love”. 

Buccilli’s approach on the immigrant women’s story, through poems like “Alterations,”  is tender and moving. The dark and upsetting colors that the poet utilizes to portray her poetic universe are contrasted and even enhanced through the female voices’ fragility, those haunting questions of mothering and being mothered often with a psychoanalytic twist, as it so happens in “What cannot be stopped has begun”. In the poet’s telling words “I have devoured the dumb child in me who crawled toward the shelter//of your body. You can quit your laboring, it does no good, now//.”

All in all, what the reader finds at the end of this volume and in the heart of Buccilli’s first poetic collection is a child’s insatiable need to be loved, caressed, and finally accepted. As the “Birthday poem”, the last poem so wonderfully puts it : “A Memento. Why else //do people have children//(…) I recognize myself//in the windows glass,//as black liquid//of a shadow,//and all at once//and for no reason//I drop//pretense &//no longer need //to know ”. Yet we do need to know more of Buccilli and her work.

Gil Fagiani’s Chianti in Connecticut, Missing Madonnas, and Stone Walls

Review by Spencer Potts

Gil Fagiani is a giant in both the New York and Italian-American literary communities. It is impossible to talk about the literature of Italian-Americans without running into Fagiani’s work. His three collections of poetry, Chianti in Connecticut (2010), Missing Madonnas (2018), and Stone Walls (2014), all offer the rich imagery, humor, and realism one comes to expect of his work. Each collection offers a fresh perspective and document on life and experiences of one particular Italian-American, Gil Fagiani himself.

Chianti in Connecticut was my first introduction to Fagiani and I was immediately struck by the strong imagery. As someone unfamiliar with Fagiani or even most contemporary poets, I was drawn to his work. This collection brings adolescent memories and experiences of 1950s America into tactile images and candid observations and humor. Fagiani weaves Italian slang and other phrases throughout the piece, placing both the subject matter and the very language itself into this particular historical and biographical moment. These poems document the life of an Italian-American in post-war America as well as the making of Gil Fagiani. His distinct character, from passions to politics, are inseparable from these works.

Missing Madonnas offers familiar Fagiani style while exploring the overtly political, economic, racial, and beyond. I was very interested in his poem, Ethiopia, a nation unique for a plethora of reasons and of interest in recent Italian history. The poem begins with imagery very familiar for many readers, nonna feeding the speaker pastina with escarole. I have fond memories of pastina, it’s a simple and popular Italian dish, and I often associate it with childhood. This image immediately plays on those comforting associations, food is always a pleasure, however he soon twists the poem after he reveals nonna’s association with Mussolini. His nonna had sold her wedding ring to finance the brutal campaign in Ethiopia and Fagiani is sure to offer brief yet brutal and real images of what that war meant to the Ethiopians. That perfectly encapsulates one strong characteristic of Fagiani’s work — Fagiani draws you in with the familiar comfort only to introduce cold realities that make the Italian-American identity more complex and not so one-dimensional.

Stone Walls returns to the adolescence and development of Gil Fagiani, from early childhood to years as a young adult struggling with drug addiction. Fagiani doesn’t pull any punches. From these poems alone, one could almost paint a perfect picture of Fagiani’s life until that point, the precision and clarity of his images paired with a sense of openness and humility make this easy to read while engaging and provoking. Of note in this work along with previously discussed collections is his use of densely packed paragraphs of short prose occasionally filling the pages between more traditional poems. One such example, Factory Job, 1969, additionally offers an opportunity to look into overt discussions of race, class, and politics through Fagiani’s radical and working class perspective. The subject matter may be old but it remains poignant, begging the reader to ask more about the Italian-American identity we created in the past and what we will create in the future.

How Fires End by Marco Rafalà

Marco Rafalà. How Fires End. Little A. 399 pp. $10.99

Marco Rafalà’s novel, How Fires End (2019) is a strong debut from an emergent voice, following the lives of various family members deeply impacted by World War II and an unexploded mortar shell in Sicily. The narrative takes shape through different perspectives in different sections of the novel, from Salvatore, a Sicilian who witnesses the death of his twin brothers before fleeing to America, to his son, David, growing up in America and unearthing different family secrets hidden by his father while following a typical coming-of-age narrative. AHHHHHHH

The first large section, David’s narrative, explores life in 1986 Connecticut for this young Sicilian-American. He faces bullies as well as his emerging self-identity, leaving bruises on his face and a distinct mohawk on his head. Some of David’s narrative is what you’d expect with 1980s references like Dungeons and Dragons to Italian-American family dynamics, however the narrative form itself, switching to different characters, as well as the unearthing of family secrets, makes this novel unique.

Next, we see Salvatore’s perspective as a young boy in Sicily during the war. We see how his character developed into the seemingly hardened widowed father we saw earlier in David’s section as well as the stories Salvatore hid from his son later in life. By switching to Salvatore, it offers a deeper appreciation for the characters. Salvatore speaks to the reader, now David, explaining why he made the choices he did, why he acts the way he acts. You not only see Salvatore’s perspective of the events but also his perspective of himself, his life and struggles.

Additional sections focus on Nella, Salvatore’s sister, and Vincenzo, Salvatore’s older friend. Vincenzo offers a well developed character and Nella punctuates the beginning and end of this novel in her sections. The main characters are very interesting and multidimensional, wedded to the experiences of Sicilians and Sicilian-Americans, and all the secondary characters and others get some attention as well. Beyond the plot itself, the characters give this novel the spark of life. I particularly enjoyed how Rafalà casually introduced the Sicilian language into the novel, weaving it into the text through phrases and concepts. Identity, faith, war, secrets, and family take the wheel of this ride.

Freuds Haberdashery Habit & Other Stories, Mike Fiorito, Published by Alien Buddha Press, 2018, 153 pages, $10.89

Reviewed by Mark Spano

Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.

—Mark Twain

Freuds Haberdashery Habit & other stories by Mike Fiorito is a collection of seven historical vignettes as history might have happened or should have happened or very likely never happened. Fiorito’s stories take us to a place in the historical imagination where Masterpiece Theater meets The National Enquirer. Retelling history as we could never know it is certainly not a new literary enterprise. Fiorito’s short, often funny, lyrical mini-histories in many respects feel a bit more like poetry than prose. This is not based not so much on poetic diction but on the author’s focus on idiosyncrasy embodied in voice. This is no easy undertaking. For me, these pieces call to mind works by the Greek, Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy, the American poet Richard Howard, William Shakespeare, and, of course, the Mr. Peabody sequences from Rocky & Bulwinkle.

Are we reading the authentic voices of Brunelleschi,  John Ruskin’s frustrated wife, Freud, Jung, Nietzsche, and Richard and Cosima Wagner (my personal favorites in the collection)? Well, maybe! What we are reading, though, is a well-deserved and riotous profanation of our cultural gods. For those of us engaged in serious literary pursuits, Fiorito has taken us elsewhere, and it’s a pretty good trip. Freuds Haberdashery Habit & other stories is an antidote to our own overly reverent intellectual posturing. Reading these stories help us to reimagine the confines of our own interiority. As Ray Bradbury has told us, “I think life is too serious to be taken seriously.”