Pasta Mike, By Andrew Cotto, Red Rose Writing, 2022, 133 pages, 14.86
Review and Interview by Vincent Sergiacomo
Discussing his motives for writing Pasta Mike, the fictionalized memoir of his relationship with and loss of his titular lifelong best friend, Andrew Cotto speaks as he writes: Frankly, and with blunt honesty.
“The inspiration for the book was that I had a friend growing up,” Cotto tells me as we speak over Zoom. “We were born five days apart, we lived five houses away from each other, and he was just my closest friend my entire life. We went through all the passages together, through adolescence and into adulthood, or quasi-adulthood, I guess, in our case. And then he passed away from leukemia in his early forties, and his death was amazingly impactful upon me.”
“I wanted to try and wrestle with the reality of the reasons for that, but also wanted to, first and foremost, pay tribute to him.”
Pasta Mike, then, is a book with two functions. It is the manifest of a man mourning his friend, a log of the memories posthumously shuffled through, a memorial to the person Cotto calls “the biggest guy in the room, the toughest guy in the room, the best-looking guy in the room, but also always the nicest guy in the world.” It is also an investigation: A study of the self in the wake of immense loss. It is a painfully rendered profile of grief, one which is only possible through its narrative’s proximity to death.
Yet to call Pasta Mike a book about death doesn’t do it justice. It is a book acutely aware of death, yes; a book intricately involved with death, absolutely. But Cotto’s musings come no closer to reconciling the purpose of death than any other work of literature ever has or ever could. Instead, Pasta Mike’s value comes from its willingness to confront loss. The bluntness with which Cotto writes of the aftermath of Mike’s passing is sobering. We see his character slip into hopelessness, alcoholism, and eventually, after a strenuous process of eulogizing and self-reflection, acceptance.
“When Mike passed, what I wasn’t aware of was how debilitating it would be to not have that person there anymore,” Cotto tells me. “To know that loss… in the book the character of Andy compares it metaphorically to losing a limb. And then that person, that missing arm or whatever it is, just never escapes the person’s conscience. They keep looking for it, no matter what, no matter how long they’ll be alive. They’ll always try to use that arm by instinct, and feel it sometimes. They call that ghost pain that you feel. That was the difficult part.”
Cotto writes of this difficulty with intimacy. Jutting between points in time, he illustrates the swirl of grief as an unending storm, occasionally calm but always holding the potential to destroy. Life goes on outside of Andy’s bubble of suffering, but he finds “nothing to do, not eat, drink, nor anything else available in the most vibrant city in the world, paralyzed emotionally and spiritually as I was.” A writer of noir, Cotto’s language is often visceral and physical. The world replies to his turmoil with bites, cuts, warmth, and, perhaps most importantly, indifference.
Cotto explains to me that Pasta Mike was written in part to provide a solace he couldn’t find when coping with Mike’s death.
“We spend so much time in society talking about what happens when you lose a relative – I’m sorry about your uncle, I’m sorry about your cousin, I’m sorry about your spouse, I’m sorry about your child,” Cotto says. “I know that feeling – my mother, who is also massive figure of my life, died shortly before Mike, the year before. And I got so much more support over that; I got so much more concern, so many more people recognizing my grief. I don’t think that we pay that same attention when we lose a friend, because friends are hard to define.”
“One of the reasons that I chose this rather unpredictable and often frustrating vocation is, you know, I really would love to help people through my narratives not feel so alone at times,” he adds. “And I want to foster empathy from those who haven’t experienced it but know someone who might have. If someone picks up this book, I’d like them to think, hey, it’s not unusual to be so waylaid by losing a friend.”
Cotto does an effective job establishing Mike as a figure of almost mythical proportions – hyperbole and truth are often one and the same, the oversized details of Mike’s life sufficiently illustrating his presence and importance to Andy. Cotto’s decision to fictionalize lends the story a focus it wouldn’t be able to maintain had its narrative been focused more on detailed, accurate retelling.
“I wanted to tell the story of me and him, so I took us and plunged us out of our real life and put us in a fictional place,” Cotto remarks, “so I can concentrate on the friendship first and foremost, and then fictionalize the other aspects of our lives. It made it much, much easier. It’s like I went a foot wide and a mile deep, as opposed to a mile wide and a foot deep.”
This depth, combined with Cotto’s illustrative voice, provide Pasta Mike with a humanity that supplements its lessons on grief. We are given simultaneously a guidebook and a journal detailing the process of writing that guidebook. Cotto’s details are meaningful, his prose concise without being empty, and he creates a text that feels more like a conversation than a novel much of the time. His authorial voice is perfect for this tale he is so clearly passionate about telling, and, as it does in much of his work, Cotto’s Italian-American heritage lends it a certain personality.
“I’m very proud of many aspects of my heritage, because I know they’re the things that make me who I am, particularly as it involves relationships,” Cotto says. “The act of service that Italians convey through food and the sharing of food and preparation of food is something I’m a huge believer in. To me that is church; that is my religion. You know that if you’re gonna come to my house, sit down, I’m going to prepare food for you, and we’re going to enjoy it together. That’s how I convey love to people, and that is a very Italian-American trait, and it’s a huge part of Mike and Andy’s relationship.”
Mike and Andy’s relationship is where Pasta Mike draws its strength from, and if Cotto’s goal was to memorialize his friend, he’s gone above and beyond with this book. Their friendship is lamented in vivid, heartfelt retellings, and the loss Cotto spends two-thirds of this narrative dealing with is genuinely painful to read through thanks to his attention to emotional detail. Pasta Mike stands as a testament to male friendship, and teaches lessons on grief valuable to anyone at any age. A beautiful, often devastating story, displaying the vast and tumultuous breadth of human emotional experience.
My Borrowed Face by Stacy R. Nigliazzo, Press 53, 2022, 74 pages, $17.95
Reviewed by Jennifer Martelli
Stacy R. Nigliazzo’s latest book, the award-winning, My Borrowed Face, is more than a collection of poems that recount the COVID-19 pandemic. The collection is an incessant heartbeat marching toward an inevitable tragedy. The poems are written from the perspective of having served “the Houston community as a frontline caregiver in the emergency department over the course of five pandemic surges.” Nigliazzo renders the reader breathless, with poems that pull apart on the page, and yet, carefully entwine the medical and the botanical. The poems leave us in pieces, while at the same time, remain unified by the voice of the nurse, who narrates a countdown of “Pre-Pandemic” poems leading us into “the thorny crown of stone Christ” and the emergency ward during this crisis.
Throughout the collection, memories of the speaker’s mother and her death from cancer underscore the weight of what these frontline workers carry under their protective gear into these emergency rooms. The poem “5920 Days Pre-Pandemic” is haunting. The title portends the pandemic, as if it had always been with us; it also addresses the role of nurse, and how that, too, always existed for the speaker:
My mother has cancer. I pray
for a cure,
then for her to die
I never knew—
could not have known
I want to be a nurse—
I have never discussed an author’s photograph in a review, but one must look at the back page of the book to see the author. Nigliazzo is photographed in full protective gear, so that all we see are her eyes. The poems reflect this disassociation with the body by their imagery and their arrangement on the page. We, as readers, experience the white space as gasps. Nigliazzo’s opening poem, “Mask,” offers us
My borrowed face,
I give you only
Nigliazzo inserts poems throughout the collection that recount the necessity and repetition of protecting oneself as the one who will be in close contact with the infected people. The poems “30 Days Out, “ “125 Days Out,” “330 Days Out,” all begin with the same intoning lines: “I leave the room, doff my gown and gloves, wash my hands, put on new gloves, doff my cap and face shield. . . .” Thus, fully covered, the nurse must help patients die. These “masks” then become the different roles the speaker assumes for her patients: the borrowed face. In “Sharon,” Nigliazzo writes:
And last night,
here, in room 203,
I counted the steps of his galloping heart with my fingertip.
He called me by your name.
The nurse becomes the surrogate wife, mother, child. In “575 Days Out,” we see what this “borrowing” does to the frontline workers:
I tell you
You fall asleep on a bench seat. I replace your keening oxygen tank
hourly in the lobby.
Someone else calls your wife with an update.
I have worn this mask for six days.
These are not my hands.
This is not my face.
The enormity of being a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic is so delicately rendered in these poems, transforming the body of both the patient and the nurse into botanical structures. The poem “Abscission,” which means a natural detachment of parts of a plant (dead leaves, fallen fruit), Nigliazzo entwines the medical with the botanical, creating a sense of place for this deadly outbreak; this disease (or perhaps any disease) is a part of us, of our world:
Their gloved hands
litter the street,
discarded faces hush the winded earth,
In “Five Days Out,” the patient’s
The nurse, too, becomes part of the natural landscape of Texas, when at “350 Days Out,”
I quiet my eyes with ragweed,
rinse my mouth with red earth,
wring out the Rio Grande
into a Dixie cup.
Stacy R. Nigliazzo has offered us her experience during this time of indescribably loss,
when on “One Day Pre-Pandemic,”
The sun brands the ground,
sloughs its red crown
against the gray birch—
The poems throb across the page, pulling us apart with each word or phrase, transforming until “Our hearts break.” Nigliazzo weaves this profession with nature, changes the uniform of the “nurse” into
Nettles in my hair,
through my skin—
of paper wasps on pins—
My Borrowed Face must be read. This book implores us to “please make eye contact with me.” It is a necessary—and beautiful—collection that meets the challenge of this extraordinary time.
Ways to Read the World: Stories in Triptych by Robert Scotellaro, Scantic Books, 2022, 127 pages, $13.95
Reviewed by Mike Fiorito
Every now and then a book comes along that is so different and new that you know you’ve never read anything like it before. Ways to Read the World, a collection of flash fiction tales, by Robert Scotellaro is such a book. The stories are unique and strange. The book title captures, what I think to be, the overall thesis of these stories. The pieces present very random, but believable, situations. The stories search for answers to questions like: How do our minds think? How does the world formulate around our mind?
The writing is concise and powerful. The images hit you over the head like a metal anvil. Scotellaro’s flash fiction often reads like poetry. These pieces could easily be prose poems. But those are mere labels. The writing is all that matters.
I should say that, although I’m writing about a few poems here, every poem in this collection is very good.
Opening the book, I was struck immediately by the world that Scotellaro’s words create. Some sentences jump out like writings from religious texts or epic poems. Like all the poems in this collection, “Niagara Falls” breaks the piece up into three subsections, hence the subtitle, Stories in Triptych. In the section called High Stakes, Scotellaro talks to the reader, saying, “Picture a man of average stature and looks seated beside a woman of average stature and looks on a flight to New York from small Midwestern towns.” And immediately, you’re dropped into the world of the poem. This mundane opening is followed by: “Imagine him opening a bag of peanuts, delicately, as if he’s unlocking the secrets in an ancient scroll.” We then move through the relationship of this man and woman as they settle into a visit to New York.
We follow the characters as they find themselves sleeping together in a cheap hotel, cheating on their spouses. We can imagine that this encounter just happened. It certainly wasn’t planned and was likely not expected. They go to Coney Island the next day. He’s thinking of his wife, imagining talking to her about the dental appliances convention he’s in New York to attend. Likewise, she thinks of her husband and her kids. She imagines her husband’s dull neckties “mulch brown and dull end-of-autumn greens. Always on crooked.” That said, it’s not even clear that these two people like each other. He, for one, obsesses on her imperfect teeth, thinking that she should have worn a retainer when she was younger to make her teeth straighter. She thinks he smells. But there they are flung together the way life smashes all phenomena (people, atoms, stars) together.
The last sentence of the poem leaves the reader wondering. “Picture the gulls overhead getting every word right, the tide getting every word right,” as if the writer of this poem is a higher sentience, watching the universe unfold. As if the universe is the writer of these stories.
You have to read these poems more than once. And you will be glad you did. They simply defy comprehension on first reading, at least for me. Like all great art, the more you look, the more you will see in these pieces.
In the poem “Squirm,” Scotellaro places us in the mind of Gary, who is looking up at the clouds feeling “smited (biblically) though he tells himself he shouldn’t.” We learn that Gary was struck by lightning. He looks up at the clouds as if they conspired against him; but they are just phenomena of this world. They don’t have any stake in the goings on of humans, even if they can strike some people with a bolt of electricity.
In the next section, Gary meets Frida at a Lightning Strike Survivor group. She says to the group, “Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about religion.” She says this after someone in the group says that “they feel both punished and blessed.” Frida then goes on to talk about how she burned a bible in a bathtub with a can of lighter fluid. “You should have seen it: all those ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ going up in smoke.”
When Gary gets up to hug Frida, they give each other a shock, which is funny given that they are in a Lightning Strike Survivor group.
Later that night, Gary takes Frida to the strip mall where he works as a mattress salesman. They bounce on the bed together. After Gary asks, “You like being bad?” Frida says that “Bad is good,” adding, “Goody two shoes went flying out of me as I was lying there on the ground unable to move,” referring to when she was struck by lightning. But, nearly naked, “when he goes to embrace her, she weeps.”
They then discuss how the lightning changed them. “Things taste better,” says Gary. “Coming that close to death. Feeling its breath on you, maybe spices things up a bit after,” he adds. Frida tells Gary about how she was lost for a time, working at her uncle’s music box factory, after being struck. She says that “the same ditzy tunes kept getting stuck in her head,” driving her nuts. Gary stops paying attention to her and drifts into his own head, recalling what happened after he was struck. His face down in the mud, he saw a worm squirming past his vision. Gary wondered: is the worm alive? The experience of seeing the worm had a profound effect on him. “It’s a fucking worm, you idiot,” he thought to himself. The worm makes Gary reflect on the idea that he’s just another “thing” alive on this earth, in this world, in this cosmos. We’re all stuff.
Frida knocks him out of his reverie, asking, “Pass the hot sauce,” bringing him back into the here and now. And the poem ends.
In the poem “Stuck,” we’re presented with the narrator looking at conjoined twins “staring through the window of the pet shop in the mall.” As he looked at them, “Only half of them laughed, waved an arm excitedly. But only one.”
In the second section of the poem “Through the Looking Glass,” the narrator comes for a pair of dress pants to wear at his daughter’s graduation. He thinks of the house he lived in for twenty-three years of marriage. How the house never seemed big enough. He also thinks of the road trips that felt like “straitjackets” that he needed to break out of, “even if only for a moment alone, to gaze at the mountain or field of wildflowers at a rest stop.” Stuck.
In the third section of the poem “Reflection,” the narrator is back in the pet shop, staring at the conjoined twins. He imagines their predicament: “What if one of them met somebody, romantically? How would the other provide privacy to the other? Could they feign disappearing? Or what if one wanted to sit alone and think, while the other danced? How would that work?” All good questions. Things most of us don’t have to consider in our lives.
While inside the pet shop, the twins are holding a kitten. Everyone is looking at them. Leaning in to get a better look at them, he and the twins lock eyes. The kitten squirms as they gaze down upon it. The narrator then rushes away, “pushed into and against the gushing tide of shoppers feeling so alone, so alone, and simultaneously, so happy to be.”
The tales in these pieces are always entertaining. Scotellaro has an eye for the weird things of this world and knows how to freeze them in the amber of his poetry. In reading these wonderful stories, we understand that there are “other ways to read the world,” delivering on the promise of the collection’s title.
Talking to the Girls: Intimate and Political Essays of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Edited by Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti, New Village Press, 2022, 335 pages, $26.95
Reviewed by Nicole Greaves
Because of writers and activists like Edvige Giunta and Mary Anne Trasciatti, the editors of Talking to the Girls, more people are aware of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire that took place on March 25, 1911, on the eighth through eleventh floors of the Asch Building. The ironically fireproof building, which still stands today, housed the Triangle Waist Company in Greenwich Village, where approximately 500 workers, mainly young immigrant girls, produced voguish cotton blouses, or “waists.”
If readers, however, missed this pivotal moment in American history that catalyzed the labor movement and workplace safety standards––particularly given the persistent marginalization of women’s history––the book details and explores what happened, recounting the horrific details of what some consider the worst tragedy in New York City before 9/11. One hundred and forty-six perished because the factory bosses locked the doors to prevent theft, causing many of the desperate laborers to either die in the fire or leap from the buildings to their deaths. Perhaps they uttered their last prayers in Yiddish or Italian since these mostly immigrant girls and women were predominantly Jewish or Italian.
As the editors point out in the introduction of Talking to the Girls, however, the book is not simply a recollection of what happened but a conversation with the past to identify how “the memory of Triangle exists in a space that is both personal and collective.” Here, descendants, scholars, and artists draw personal connections that contextualize history and the correlations between our ancestors, culture, and the strife in the world today. The fire becomes that “public memory” described by historian John Bodnar and quoted in the introduction: “‘Public memory emerges from the intersection of official and vernacular cultural expressions.’” Talking to the Girls catalogs the continued expression by those whom the fire touched that moves others. Truths rise to the surface: including the brutal working conditions the garment workers faced, the fact that one-third of those who died were southern Italian immigrants, how some prominent unionist had to hide their sexual orientation, and the strategy of accusing uninionist as communists to quell momentum.
The essays themselves were born out of essential questions and a charge posed to the contributors: “‘Why did you gravitate toward the Triangle fire? Why is it important to your life? Write an essay.’” Readers walk through different scenes as writers stop to “chalk” the names of those lost on the sidewalk, recanting, honoring, and memorializing. We stand on the sidewalk to look up at the Asch Building. We peer through windows to watch hands furiously moving to stitch buttonholes, snip fabric, pack items up in boxes, and reach out to be saved. We travel through the world to see the Italian villages some of the workers came from and to Bangladesh to consider how women and girls continue to suffer exploitation in sweatshops. We hear about the women’s role in unionizing to create more justice in labor practices. We sit with and consider the deep effects of industrial capitalism.
Divided into five sections––Witness, Families, Teachers, Movements, and Memorials––that help anchor the overarching narratives, many of the essays in each section slip across themes and traverse how they are interconnected just as our identities are rooted in a past that is both known and unknown and even, at times, completely unknowable, such as the lives of many Black women in the garment industry denied positions.
In Witness in the essay “The New Deal with My Grandmother Frances Perkins,” we hear from Francis Perkins’s grandson who remembers “eating arrowroot biscuits in bed” with her in her house in Newcastle, Maine, and slipping out of the window on a rope ladder to land safely on the ground then back up again through his grandmother’s window. Later, he learned about how his grandmother’s witness of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire flamed her hunger for justice, propelling her to work tirelessly, eventually becoming the first female secretary of labor under FDR and hailed as being responsible for social security, minimum wage, and federal law regulating child labor. Francis Perkins’s colossal shadow looms throughout all of these pages.
In Families in the essay “Triangle in Two Acts: From Bubbe Mayses to Bangladesh,” historian Annelise Orleck ties together the work her grandmother Lena did at Triangle and her legacy to Kalpona Akter, one of the most known and celebrated garment workers leaders of the twenty-first century. In the Epilogue, Akter recounts her own history working as a child laborer and the childhood experiences denied to her that fostered her activism.
As an educator, I was drawn to the Teachers section, where essays spoke to progressive tenets in education that emphasize social justice and authentic practice by having students engage in their own activism, understanding that in that Dewey-sense of learning that recognizes “education is not preparation for life but life itself.” The cover of the book shows essayist Kimberly Schiller’s eighth grade students from J. Taylor Finley Middle School in Huntington, NY, embodying such an education, marching with “shirtwaist kites,” shirtwaists erected on poles and sashed with the victims’ names.
In “Remembering the Triangle Fire in California,” Laura E. Ruberto posed her own essential questions about the fire after sharing the events with her daughter. She reflected: “What happens to the history of a fire when it is remembered far from where it happened? How can we make this story matter in other places and time periods?” She helped to lead the project “LEARN––SHARE––SEW” for Berkeley Community College and other community members that bridged the circles. The participants then engaged in the hands-on practices of chalking names and sewing to strengthen a connection to the past.
The compelling essay “Teaching the Girls: The Triangle Fire as Affective History,” by Jacqueline Ellis, highlights the continued ridicule of girls and women who try to assert themselves and push against conventional appearance, connecting reformer Clara Lemlich to Parkland activist X González who was mocked by people in power for her shaved head and even for how she mourned.
In Movements’ “Solidarity Forever!” labor activist May Y. Chen reflects on the Asian struggles in the garment industry and in America in general, which clearly persist today in the wake of COVID-19. In Memorials, Ester Rizzo Licarta’s essay returns us to Sicily to see how the unknown come alive in parks and streets names for future generations to walk along.
As pointed out by the editors and essayists throughout, memory and the book itself is a form of activism. Words move like stitches across the page to thread together voices and experiences of the many women whose voices were or continue to be left out of history, women like Clara Lemlich, Fannia Cohn, and Pauline Newman. Women kept history alive but too often, as Chen points out in her essay, the stories were thought to be embellishments, the story of the fire just “a crazy story told by an old lady.” When women are left out of history, history becomes an illusion that perpetuates the illusions of today. Talking to the Girls serves as a living text that shows us how the fire still burns, one that readers, particularly educators, will need to return to again as a resource for both its in-depth exploration of history as well as to support continued activism against persistent injustice in the workplace and the world at large.
Italy Is Out by Mario Badagliacca with Derek Duncan, Liverpool University Press, 2021, 102 pages, $19.99
Reviewed By George De Stefano
Italy Is Out, despite its title, is not a book about Italian gay life. Once I began reading, I got over my disappointment that it wasn’t, and my mild annoyance that the authors had appropriated terminology associated with coming out of the closet. In images and words, the book explores how Italians and people of Italian descent maintain italianità, Italian-ness, out of Italy. The product of a research project funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council, Italy Is Out comprises portraits shot by Sicilian photographer Mario Badagliacca in Argentina, England, Ethiopia, Tunisia, and the United States. The photographs have brief captions with quotations from and biographical information about each subject. The book also includes essays written by members of the research team and others involved with the project.
Researchers from five British universities “looked at different aspects of Italian heritage and cultural memory across the globe” to understand “what migration meant for people who left Italy, their descendants and the communities they moved into.” Derek Duncan, a professor of Italian at the University of St. Andrews, invited Badagliacca to be the project’s artist in residence. After Badagliacca accepted, he realized he didn’t know how to proceed, except that he didn’t want to “take pictures of cooks and pizza chefs in case I ended up repeating the usual Italian stereotypes.” Food, however, ended up being important to the project, thanks to one of the photographic subjects, Julia Della Croce, an Italian American chef and food writer whose “idea that food can be seen as a tool of political emancipation” made Badagliacca realize that you can’t avoid the topic when talking about Italian culture. Food, language, music, architecture, religion, and “countless other ways of ‘being Italian’” became focal points in exploring how the book’s subjects maintained links to Italy.
Badagliacca looked at three different generations of italiani all’estero—Italians who emigrated in the mid-twentieth century; people of Italian origins born abroad; and a younger generation of Italians who emigrated in the past twenty or so years because they had few prospects in a country that rarely rewarded ability, was in a perennial state of economic crisis, and was burdened with a sclerotic and nepotistic political system. The first of the three generations represents “the archetype or indeed stereotype of the economic migrant, the self-made man.” Badagliacca was interested in using that figure “as an archetype, by way of contrast, against foreign migrants in Italy” who are accused of being a drain on social welfare systems. He shot the portraits in familiar surroundings, their homes or neighborhood settings. To create “a greater feeling of intimacy,” Badagliacca asked his subjects to bring three personal items representing “their link with Italian culture and their own roots.” The objects with captions appear on the pages opposite the portraits.
In most portraits, the subjects are in the center of the frame, sitting or standing, gazing into the near distance or directly at the photographer. Most are individual portraits; others are couples; one is a parent and child. The similarities in composition don’t result in monotony; the subjects are too diverse and too interesting. Eight live in or have lived in Argentina, seven in the United States, and six in England. Another five were born in or relocated to Tunisia and Ethiopia. They were included because Tunisia is “the destination of a Sicilian diaspora that sees the other shore of the Mediterranean as its natural geographical and cultural extension”; Ethiopia because Badagliacca wanted “to understand the effects of Italian occupation in East Africa on families who had been there for generations,” living through major historical events, including war and dictatorship.
Their chosen objects are humble but laden with meaning, representing family histories, cultures of origin and their new homes; household objects; books and artworks; record albums. Riccardo Iorio from Anzio picked a pasta machine, his grandmother’s salt and pepper shakers, and a baseball (the sport became popular in Anzio during the Second World War). Alfonso Campisi, from Trapani, Sicily but now a Tunisian citizen, chose a majolica tile, a piece of furniture made in the nineteenth century that Campisi inherited from his grandmother, and a painting of a Sicilian Jewish woman who lived in Tunisia. Julia della Croce, born in the United States to Sardinian parents, selected a photograph of her father taken in Cagliari, a 1920s edition of Il Talismano, a classic Italian cookbook, and souvenirs she bought in Venice. Claudia Giunta, born in Sicily and living in the United States, chose records she listened to as a child in Sicily, records her sister Edvige listened to as a child, and her grandmother’s household objects.
Historian Donna Gabaccia, in her essay, “Seeing Diaspora,” observes that Italian immigrants “maintain “material, social, and sentimental” connections to their places of origin, their kin and paesani, rather than “to an abstract Italian nation or nation state,” noting that the objects that the book’s subjects have chosen are “humble symbols” rather than Italian flags, photographs of the capital, Rome, or monuments. “Notions of home and identity in diaspora remain deeply private, familial and domestic,” she observes, “and they continue to work against the formation of a single or powerfully national Italian diaspora.”
In one of the book’s best and most moving essays, Edvige Giunta, a Sicilian-born writer and educator who moved to the United States in 1984, invokes llammicu, an ancient Sicilian term for “the yearning for something you had and lost. It spreads from your gut through every cell of you.” In New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and teaches, there are constant, quotidian reminders of her homeland—an old Italian woman in Hoboken makes her think “of old Sicilian women full of stories.” Watching her husband tend roses reminds her of her father’s “patient, devoted, gardening.” Even though she has a family and a job “teaching in the language no longer foreign to you,” llammicu is never far away: “You taste the bitterness of being uprooted.”
Giunta is one of only two subjects for whom emigration has produced discontent. The others, most of whom are educated professionals, prosperous business people, cultural workers, and academics, express little regret about having left Italy or feelings of alienation from the places they emigrated. They have adapted to their new homelands, identify with the places outside of Italy where they were born (while maintaining “material, social, and sentimental” connections to Italy), and, in a few cases, prefer them to Italy. Shirin Ramzanali Fazel, like Edvige Giunta, both identifies with and feels ambivalent about the country she calls home. A Somali Muslim immigrant to Italy who, as a child, went to an Italian school in Mogadishu, she was raised to believe that “Islam is above all doing good to others.” Fazel lives in an Italy “where Islam is demonized, and hostility to the religion has become the norm.” Although she likens Italy to a stepmother, she asks, “but can I be sure she accepts me?”
Italy is Out inspired me to think about my relationship with Italy as the grandson of Badagliacca’s “archetypal” economic migrants, poor and minimally educated working-class people who came to the United States in the early twentieth century from Sicily and Campania. My American-born parents considered themselves Italian, even though my mother never visited Italy, and my father never returned after being stationed there as a GI during the last two years of World War II. They spoke Italian, or rather, their regional languages, only with the “oldtimers,” family members who had been born in Italy. (After these anziani died, my parents retained only a few phrases and expressions.) They exchanged Christmas cards with relatives in Naples and Ragusa, kept up with news from Italy, and played Italian records at home. During the glory years of neorealismo and commedia all’italiana, they were avid Italian film fans.
Like many third-generation Italian Americans, I decided to explore my roots. I studied Italian, read Italian history and literature, immersed myself in la musica popolare, the traditional or folk music of Southern Italy, and frequently traveled to Italy. In la madrepatria, I felt at home, enamored of the country, and seriously considering relocating there. But as an uncloseted gay man, I also felt alienated from the prevailing Catholic culture and the overbearing maschilismo. After I finished Italy Is Out, I wondered what three objects I would have chosen to represent my connection to Italy and Italian culture. They would be Il Libro d’oro della Cucina e dei Vini di Sicilia, Pino Correnti’s authoritative history of Sicilian gastronomy and enology, with recipes, a cherished gift from a gay friend in Sicily; a framed poster promoting tourism to Sicily that I found in a flea market in New York; and a beautiful, handmade wooden music box I bought in Sorrento for my parents, which, since their deaths last year, now sits on a shelf in the New York apartment I share with my husband, a reminder of loss and of connection.
The Paletti Notebook: Darren Priest Mysteries Book 3 by Dick Rosano, Published by Next Chapter, 2022, 323 pages, Paperback $12.49/Kindle $4.99
Reviewed by Mark Spano
“People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil
as when they act out of religious conviction.”
― Umberto Eco
Dick Rosano is an Italian-American writer of history, fiction, food, wine, and travel. He has had long-running columns in The Washington Post, Ambassador Magazine, and Wine Enthusiast to name a few. His travels have taken him to Europe, South America, Asia, and throughout the United States. He has lectured at the Smithsonian Institution, L’Academie de Cuisine, and aboard Viking Cruise Lines.
Rosano’s latest book, The Paletti Notebook is a story of how the past finagles its way into the present, infecting the moment with sinister motives and the deadliest of crimes. In this third of his Darren Priest mysteries, Rosano’s lucid and readable prose style shepherds his reader through a maze of intersecting timelines and geographical itineraries.
Rosano’s series of books (The Vienna Connection, The Etruscan Connection, and The Paletti Notebook) are all based on Darren Priest and his team of former agents, police, and military personnel. Priest is a former intelligence officer whose past assignments have left a trail of enemies––both governmental and personal––all over the world. But he is reminded by the U.S. government that “some things you can’t unvolunteer for,” so he is called back to service when the president or other officials determine that his skills are required. Other countries come to know his abilities and those of his team, and they, too, ask Priest to help solve their international problems.
The cast of characters in this recent novel includes the geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, like da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and event art historian Giorgio Vasari from many of our art history classes. Also, a great many villains and prelates gone bad from throughout European history and culture populate Rosano’s story. The novel is a refresher course in Western Civilization and art history.
Without giving away the story, I will say that Rosano spins a tale braided with many a skein. What is the Paletti Notebook? Why does everyone want it? Detective Darren Priest, his Viennese police officer girlfriend, and his sidekick Aggie Darwin like Theseus and the Athenian youth, hold the thinnest strand as they wander through a dark and dangerous labyrinth of time and place to crack the conundrum of the Paletti Notebook.
Like a shot, Rosano’s story displaces us across a shifting landscape from present-day Washington DC to any number of pasts. What’s not to love about Italy, Vienna, history, religion, art, fine food and wine, corruption and intrigue?
This book is abundant with fast turns and nearly cinematic jumps and jolts along the road to an epiphany, making it very much worth the read.