Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos: How Italian Women Make the Ordinary, Extraordinary. Gabriella Contestabile, Sumisura Publications, 2017, 199 pp. $15.95
Reviewed by Lauren Amariti
Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos: How Italian Women Make the Ordinary, Extraordinary by Gabriella Contestabile is an elegantly crafted memoir of the author’s experience as an Italian American woman, while also focusing on the unique, rich history of Italian, and at times, global artisanship, and the ways in which her experiences on the two sides of the Atlantic intersected with and contrasted from each other.
Contestabile gets into the nitty gritty of her experience and how that was unique to her. Moving from Italy on a world famous ship to Canada, then to New York City and within the city, and her experiences when she returns to the homeland are thought provoking and nostalgic, making readers yearn for a time and experience they never lived through. The thread weaving this narrative together primarily lays on fashion, particularly about her crafty, talented mother, who idolized fashion and became part of that world in her own way. Contestabile speaks of the knowledge her mother gave her of fashion and style, and in particular, how that relates to the Italian way of life, discussing the things that set Italian culture apart from her new surroundings in the United States.
Through her use of personal narratives of her family as they journey through life in North America, and her return trips back to Italy to see her zie and zii and Nonna Laura, and through depictions of famous designers and their ever timeless, revolutionary, unique designs to emerge from the tumultuous history of Italy, she paints a vivid landscape of one of the countries in which she finds her home. It seldom comes down to just fashion. Fashion is but one aspect of her Italian American lifestyle. She touches on the ways Italy sets their industries apart by being sustainable and listening to the land as opposed to using up the land, and of course, there is a large discussion of food that placed me right in my seat at my grandmother’s kitchen table. She uses this all to display the superiority of the Italian lifestyle and that it is something America should focus on as opposed to the fast fashion, fast food, hyper materialist society we have here based in consumerism. In Italy, things aren’t just things. They carry meaning in their craftsmanship that ought to be recognized, that others ought to take notes from in order to paint a more beautiful, extraordinary world. I would say this book would benefit from featuring pictures for all the various references to fashion and designers Contestabile makes, and for all the experiences she details in the book, but her prose flows so brilliantly and her imagery is so strong that we do not need them. We can see them already so clearly.
Interview with Gabriella Contestabile author of Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos
By Lauren Amariti
After the mind opening experience of reading Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos: How Italian Women Make the Ordinary, Extraordinary by Gabriella Conestabile, I sat down with her via Zoom for an interview about the work, her inspiration, and her life up to this point as it related to the nonfiction memoir published in 2017.
The first thing we discussed was the structure of the work. She wanted to write nonfiction about Italian artisanship, and never intended for it to be a memoir. But, as she moved more in the process of research and writing, she realized her heritage, her immigrant experience was something that bled very naturally into what she was discussing. She explained “It’s where the book wanted to go.” As a reader, I’m pleased it did. Reading her work and discussing it with her made me feel more connected to my own Italian American heritage. Her mission was to reveal the soul of “Italian style,” and drawing on her heritage and personal experience made this organic.
Contestabile describes how her mother and her father kept her connected to her Italian heritage, and that when they moved to North America, to Canada from Italy. In a lot of ways, Contestabile’s book felt like a tribute to her mother, Clelia, a fierce, crafty, artistic woman who is familiar with the Italian way, who is 97 and living with her currently. Contestabile tells about her favorite articles of clothing her mother made her, many of which she still keeps. The way she discusses a particular tunic with silver embroidery, and a cream, french fabric dress keeps her mother’s work alive, and mirrors exactly the way she writes and narrates the book, which is so full of imagery. Her mother was into sewing, something Contestabile is picking up again. Her father insisted they keep speaking Italian at home and English elsewhere, whereas many Italian immigrant families insisted their children only speak English. Contestabile is interested in keeping that language alive. She reads in Italian and English, and studied Italian as a language on her own as well. She tells of her father who kept her connected to Italian culture through literature. She says, “My father registered me for just about every book club he could find in English or Italian, and he would always come home with books,” sometimes from his work, or Italian bookstores, or other contacts. She notes that Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was the first book she read in Italian, after reading it two or three times in English first. And whenever she went to Italy to visit family, her relatives would give her books as gifts. She feels that reading in Italian connects her to the culture. But in the United States, she has also found exceptional communities with Italian women, and the Italian American literature community, such as Ovunque Siamo. Contestabile’s parents’ influence on her in this regard is profound: her mother kept her grounded, and her father’s insistence on not losing the Italian language kept her connected to Italy, which she considers a home away from home.
Of course with moving between cultures during her life, Contestabile is particularly able to point out the differences that made connecting to her new home in the United States difficult. In her opinion, she notes how the Italian community is family and culture based, while in America, the culture is significantly more competitive, and isolating. However, for the younger generation, she notes how some of these gaps have been changed by the rise of technology and the role modern technology has played in community formation. However, upon her immigration to North America, she and her family put their own Italian charm into place in order to build a community wherever they were: of course it was through food. She says, “[Food] seems to color just about everything. It seems to be the pattern of every day.” She enjoys the way food brings people together, to the point she will always invite new neighbors over for a plate of pasta. The only downside she notes with a laugh, is “that Italians never measure food. They just simply know how it should be.” She keeps food at the forefront of her American life as well: she has taken over cooking a big Thanksgiving dinner for her husband’s family after his mother passed, noting the importance of the meal in America, and she didn’t want to lose that tradition. American culture isn’t the only thing she has been able to fit in with her Italian ideals, however. In her style, something very close to Italian, she likes to bring in the colors and styles of different cultures, particularly noting her love of Mandarin colors. She finds multicultural dress exciting and notes that “Each [culture] allows you in a way to enter that world, […] you start to wear the world, you become global and that’s part of what I think is so exciting.” In this book, Contestabile points out this image she remembers of seeing First Nations people in Canada, and how she found their dress so striking. The art of Indigenous people is something she wishes was more prominent in the United States because of its uniqueness.
She finally notes of Sass, Smarts, and Stilettos, that fashion is a means of empowerment. It helped Italy gain recognition after the destruction left in the country from World War II. It really put Italy and their style on the map, and the fashion industry wouldn’t be where it is today without Italy’s contributions. This connection of fashion helping Italy out of the destruction of World War II has inspired her to write her next book about the fashion of third world countries, noting how their fashion and culture is also about the soul. She notes that we are all connected, and is dedicated to helping greater humanity through her exploration of fashion.
Finally, she tells me that her favorite dish on the Christmas Eve Feast of Seven Fishes is stuffed clams. A simple recipe involving breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil, and parsley, this dish has become one of her favorites for a quintessential Italian meal. It is customs like this that keep us both connected to Italian culture, which impacts our entire worldview, hers being particularly inspiring and hopeful.
Falling From Trees, Mike Fiorito, Apprentice House Press, 2021, 115 pages, $15.99
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jaeger
The year 2020 is one many of us will never forget. For much of the year we lived in a modified lockdown. Leaving the house could be deadly. Even our children stayed at home and attended school virtually. When possible, we had social distance gatherings, but otherwise we’ve be deprived of the companionship of our friends. And if the pandemic wasn’t enough, we’ve dealt with a wanna-be dictator in the White House. Evidence of global warming — fires, hurricanes, and floods — plagued our nation. And political events drove many of us from our homes to protest — despite the virus running rampant through the states. At times, I have found myself wondering if somehow I got trapped in one of the dystopian novels I enjoy reading so much. Over the summer, my son developed an interest in astronomy. We took his telescope to the beach and looked at the stars. As we sat on the sand, the water gently lapping against the bulkhead, my son wondered aloud if there was life on other planets and if living here got to be too hard, would aliens on other planets welcome us. In a world where everything seems to be falling apart, perhaps it is not unusual to look elsewhere for answers. While reading Mike Fiorito’s latest book, Falling From Trees, I was reminded of my son’s summer musings.
In Falling From Trees, Mike Fiorito explores the possibility of life beyond the world we know. In a manner reminiscent of both Jorges Borges and Ray Bradbury, Fiorito’s short stories examine the themes of hope, fear, identity, and a greater consciousness. Though he does not directly specify events that occurred over the last twelve months, echos of the chaos we have endured are prevalent in his tales. In the story “Tomorrow’s Ghost,” the young boy reacting to the unbearably hot temperatures due to global warming says to his father, “They’re saying we won’t have school soon. That we’ll attend school virtually.” At the moment, virtual school is a reality due to the pandemic, but we are simultaneously grabbling with a changing environment, and Fiorito raises pressing concerns regarding the future.
Here on our planet, Earthlings have a rather peculiar way of communicating and interacting with our surroundings. But what if we were going about it incorrectly? What if we are paying attention to the wrong things. In the opening story, “Climbing Trees,” aliens make contact with people who have Asperger’s. These aliens marvel that while earthlings love music, they fail to understand the underlying science. It is only when the aliens begin to help clean up our environment that people discover, “The universe is made of music. Its secrets are trapped in the melodies of ocean water, in the rushing of waterfalls.” If only we took to time to hear it. If only we allowed ourselves to be one with the music in nature. Maybe then we would embrace the need to salvage it.
In “The Purest Rain,” we learn that “Earth’s climate spiraled into instability. The polar ice caps melted to unrecoverable levels, making the oceans pour onto the coasts, crushing cities, engulfing countless lives. There were hurricane and storms. The skies had become hellfire.” Those of us who trust the science and read the newspapers know there is an element of truth here regarding the environment. In Fiorito’s story, volunteers leave the planet in search of an another place in which to live. The further they get from home, the more the alike they become, their individual personas melting and blending into one. In this new form, they take on a timelessness. Though they do not return, they attempt to communicate with people left behind, but instead of words they convey messages “in the form of rain, wind, and dreams.” Here there is an element of the ethereal, for it is not uncommon to turn to nature or dreams searching for signs from those who have departed this world.
While the stories in Falling From Trees are grounded in reality, or at the very least a dark interpretation of the data, Fiorito asks some important “What if” questions. He takes us on a ride of exploration and possibility. His tales are charming, well constructed, and stay with the reader long after the pages have been closed.
Viable, by Chloe Yelena Miller, Lily Poetry Press, 2021,
94 pages, $16.00
Review by Jennifer Martelli
In her poem, “Italian Vocabulary: Gravidanza,” Chloe Yelena Miller writes
Gravity of pregnancy,
graveness of miscarriage,
lack of a grave
since nothing is here
The poems in Viable explore the spectrum of fertility, from miscarriage through full-term pregnancy, to the loneliness of post-partum days. Miller structures the book in four sections, building around the idea of time. The Oxford Dictionary defines “tense” as “a set of forms taken by a verb to indicate the time (and sometimes also the continuance or completeness) of the action in relation to the utterance.” Three of the sections—CARRIED, CARRYING, and CARRY—chronicle this relationship of motherhood and time by employing verb tenses and word meanings, both in English and Italian. Throughout the collection—including the final section, APOLOGY—Miller mingles blood, language (Italian and English), her homage to the Italian women before her, and even food, to embrace the joy and terror of motherhood.
In “Italian Apology,” a tiny and heart-breaking gem filled with slashes and white space, Miller describes the inadequacy of words and makes her amends bilingually:
Abortio spontaneo. / Miscarriage
Mi dispiace, picola. / I am sorry, little one
that words can fail us,
that I can fail you.
In the speaker’s search for the right words in any language, she opens possibilities of grief. I knew, as I was reading, that this was a wordsmith attempting to capture in language something indescribable. I loved the lesson in Miller’s “Writing Rules,” where the speaker spans chapters of a grammar book:
If you were here,
I would be a mamma.
Such a messy compound verb tense:
subjunctive and conditional.
Speak about this only after swaddling the second child.
The gerund suggests continuation.
This continuation is expressed, again, through language. Miller’s use of Italian speaks to her own lineage, her blood-line that continues. “Ciao, Ciao!” plays with the opposing meanings of the word (which causes a tension):
Both hello and goodbye.
Importance of context.
Italians repeat ciao:
Ciao! Ciao, ciao, ciao. Ciao! Ciaociaociaociao!
In “Italian Vocabulary Lullaby: Tutto,” the comingling of family is rendered in song:
We are all together.
Tutti, tutto, tutti.
Everything, singular and plural.
Miller’s use of food—so important in the Italian culture—was a brilliant way to embody lineage, language, and the trauma of miscarriage. Listen to Miller’s description of eating an avocado in “Carrying,”
Slice the avocado around the wide middle
and across again,
until the quarters split.
Drop the pit in the trash,
scoop the flesh with a spoon.
But it’s never that easy.
Should I have pierced four toothpicks
into the sides of the pit. . . .
The poem ends with a startling image, “Miscarriage. The undoing. / Avocado pit, dry in the trash.” Miller’s poems about food are visceral, but also, bittersweet at times, conjuring an older culture of women. In her poem, “Great Aunt Dora To You (Before You),” the speaker talks to her child,
I promised to tell you about her.
How she prepared meatballs,
two spoons to turn them.
How she knew you’d be smart,
handsome and ever so kind.
Miller’s mirror poems, “Italian Vocabulary: Pericolo” and “To Do/ or After,” use food not only as images of danger and of mourning, but of time passing, a marker of an event. “Soft cheeses, dusty stuffed animals, caffeine, cured meats . . .” are to be avoided during pregnancy, but after miscarrying, the speaker can “Eat sushi, soft and blue cheeses, ocean bottom feeders, rare beef.”
I was amazed at Miller’s ability to weave time, to rearrange the “Lineage of Italian/and Italian-American women’s cupboards.” The heart-break and wonder of fertility is rendered as a real-time account, growing “into the sizes of familiar food.” I’ll re-read Viable, not only for its knowledge (Miller adds a rich reference library of literary and medical resources about pregnancy and fertility), but for its muscular honesty and its love of language. In “Figs,” Miller grapples with all the unknowable and sometimes cruel aspects of time, when she asks “How long to be sure?” This poet tells us that we are left, finally, with words, with tenses, and with time:
Removal of what was, could have been
and other compound tenses, like future.