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After a string of Australian books both adult and children's, I was beginning to feel like a serial Aussie reader and decided to get out from down under if only to vary my reading.
So, I went to Italy. I've been craving gelato and chianti ever since.
There is a significant difference between old-world writing and stories from the "colonies", penal and otherwise. The old-world has, not always, but very often, a very melancholy feel to it, whereas "newbies" from the colonies seem to have been able to free themselves somewhat from that melacholy. Their more upbeat feel may be what's so alluring to me. Or the accent. These have all been audio books.
Nevertheless, a little melancholia isn't a bad thing. What's more, My Brilliant Friend is jam-packed with writing tricks. But first, a synopsis:
My Brilliant Friend is the story of two young Neapolitan girls growing up in the harsh conditions of a very working class, poor neighborhood, their dreams, the diversions those dreams have to take due to economic hardship - one girl gets to go on to school, while her smarter friend is forced to quit school and try to marry up - and the successful, but flawed, women the girls become.
What is the absolute, most brilliant aspect of My Brilliant Friend, is its final line and how it ties the entire book together and then rips it apart, much like the last line of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's last sentence to One Hundred Years of Solitude deconstructs and erases the entire story that has gone before with one slash of the pen. Ferrante is brilliant in her alteration of this trick, to tie and deconstruct her story at the same time - all was for nothing - or so it seems since this is the first in a series of books called the Neapolitan Novels. However, I didn't know that as I listened to the last line and actually stopped my car from the force of that line. It made me think, reponder, rethink, re-reflect. It's that brilliant.
It's usually first lines that are so mesmerizing, pulling the reader in, hooking her, and making her want more. But if the last line snags in a reader's heart, it really never lets go. It haunts the reader, challenging her to think and think and think. It's an amazing writer tool I can't wait to use.
After three inconclusive rounds in the preceding days, in which nobody secured the two-thirds majority needed to win, on the morning of 31 January 2015 a fourth round of voting was held in the Italian Parliament to elect the country’s President. This time, a simple majority of the 1,009 eligible voters (the members of both Chambers of the Parliament plus some delegates from the Regions) was enough to decide the election.
A happy sight this morning—an image of One Thing Stolenin the window of Paperback Exchange, the Anglo-American bookstore in Florence, Italy, where some of the original research for this book took place in the form of interviews with the shop's owners, Maurizio Panichi and Emily Rosner.
I had gone to the shop in October 2012 in order to write a story titled "Florence's Timeless Bookstore for Expats and Travelers" (Publishing Perspectives). I soon found myself engaged in a conversation about the 1966 flooding of the Arno and the work of the Mud Angels, for Maurizio had played an important role during that terrifying time. Soon thereafter Emily and I became friends. Emily answered questions about Italian and about history as I worked through many drafts. She told me tales about her life. And she was one of the very first readers of this book, sending me a series of encouraging notes while I was traveling by train—just when I needed them most.
Today Emily posted this picture on Facebook. I'm stealing it for my blog, in Nadia fashion.
Philadelphia Inquirer editor Kevin Ferris and I have been working together through many columns now, and I am always—always—grateful for his generosity. He has a huge heart. He allows me to write from mine. I'm neither a journalist nor an academic, and I'll never be famous. Kevin doesn't mind.
This month I wanted to celebrate West Philadelphia, where part of my new novel, One Thing Stolen (Chronicle Books), is rooted (much of the book also takes place in Philadelphia's sister city, Florence, Italy). I wanted to return to those images and places that inspired scenes in the book—and to Lori Waselchuk, a West Philadelphian who walked me through those streets two years ago to help me see them with insiderly eyes.
To Kevin, who lets me love out loud, and to Lori, who gave me ideas that kept me writing forward, thank you. A note of thanks here, as well, to Hassen Saker, who offered kindness this week, and to Anna Badkhen, whose work inspired this blog a few days ago.
When the link to this story is live, I will post it here.
I’m just waking up on Giudecca Island to a volley of sights and sounds – a deliverance from the cathartic, but brooding history of Rome, from where we just came. Here, in Venice, I imagine I’m in a living painting, and an artist, with his paintbrush in hand, captures me peeking out my window – just now at the Hilton Molino Stucky, his studio across the way.
Outside, I hear the echoing serenade of tolling church bells, which I can pinpoint with my own eyes, to various steeples throughout the city that traipse along the river. Splashing waves steadily rise and fall onto green and blue algae-covered seawalls, looming directly below me, while power boats dot the landscape like steed on an aqua-colored field, gliding in various directions through the water carrying townspeople and holiday tourists about the city. And, in the foggy haze, we’re graced with this omnipotent view – and it occurs to me, I must be Dickens’ modern Venice in his “Italian Dream.”
Our first stop was in Livorno, Italy, the port city in Tuscany that took me to Florence. It was love at first sight. Even on a cold and rainy day, it was one of the most astounding cities I have ever seen. Florence is said to be the birth place of the Renaissance, and to celebrate our first stop was the Accademia Museum to visit Michelangelo’s David.
To say it is magnificent would be an understatement. It is powerful, the hands are large beyond even the size of the 14 foot sculpture that weighs in at about 6 tons. It radiates power, it was meant to do so; those hands will ultimately destroy Goliath. They are bigger than perceived reality.
The piece is an astounding work of artistry. There is a reason Michelangelo dissected cadavers and spent many hours in the Carrere Marble quarries watching the men work. It’s all there in David’s body, every nuance, every muscle, every vein is defined to perfection.
The face is that of someone older than the young teen David, emanating age and wisdom beyond the teen years, and of course the sheer male beauty. The face appears to be that of a Greek god, the look is wistful. It is pure perfection, right down to the veins in the powerful hand that holds the rock. The one holding the sling is relaxed, since little effort will be needed. The white Carrere marble seems to add strength and purity to the piece.
The day was packed with museum visits, the Church of Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross) and the old medieval bridge Ponte Vecchia crossing the Amo River.The narrow streets were filled with shops selling anything from cheeses and salamis to leather goods and gold.
Lunch at Piazza della Signorina, at Il Bargello was a welcome respite for a bit of warmth and away from the continuous rain, the pasta delicious, and the large bottle of Chianti didn’t hurt either. The creamy hazelnut gelato and espresso complimented the end of the meal. The Piazza also has a copy of David.
The rain continued throughout the day and somehow made the city more captivating and magical; the gloomy sky cast murky shadows on the striking and famed multi colored marble buildings as they glistened in the mist. Odd to say, but it was a joyful experience, the place is magical. Florence, once seen is never to be forgotten.
Florence deserves a few days not a few hours, and I have plans to be back and see the rest of this glorious place. In the meantime, I’m happy I was able to see just a little bit.
It took a long time and a lot of heartache to find my way through One Thing Stolen. I had an idea about vanishing and effacement. I am obsessed with birds and floods. I sometimes misplace things, especially names, and I have, therefore, a growing obsession with the mind and where it puts the things that once were.
I also have students I love. And I believe that language is plastic, that it must be taken apart and put back together again so that it might remain alive, so that our stories might live, too.
All of this became the web of the book called One Thing Stolen, and by the time I had finished it for real and taken the first 100 pages apart yet again— nanoseconds before it went off to the copy editor—I was in a quiet place. Bewildered by—and grateful to—the strange workings of the literary imagination.
I sought no blurbs for the book. It was going out there, bravely, on its own.
Two nights ago, a friend alerted me to some goings-on on Twitter. Did you see what A.S. King has written about One Thing Stolen? the friend asked. What I found there, on the Twitter stream, made me cry. It kept me up through most the night. An act of friendship so remarkable. Words I needed to hear.
When I wrote to thank Amy for her generosity, she offered to write a blurb for the book. Really? I said. Really, she said. Or something like that. She wrote not one, but two, and because I like them both so much I will share them here. These words will appear on reprint editions of One Thing Stolen (for the book has already gone to press) and everywhere else, starting now.
Grateful doesn't begin to describe it. Thank you, A.S. King.
Kephart at her poetic and powerful best. ONE THING STOLEN is a masterwork—a nest of beauty and loss, a flood of passion so sweet one can taste it. This is no ordinary book. It fits into no box. It is its own box—its own language.
ONE THING STOLEN is a tapestry of family, friendship, Florence, and neuroscience. I’ve never read anything like it. Kephart brings the reader so deep inside Nadia we can feel her breathe, and yet her story leaves us without breath.
A.S. King is the author of Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, Reality Boy, Ask the Passengers, Everybody Sees the Ants, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and The Dust of 100 Dogs
When I am writing everywhere I go, everyone I meet and everything I hear someone say has the potential to feed into my story, particularly when it is a place removed from my everyday life and experiences. When I travel I find images, scents, stray bits of conversation take seed and create stories of their own. I've just returned from a week in the south of Italy where I visited family many times as a child, and over the years since but I'd not been there for a few years. I have returned, my head full of all the different characters and situations I encountered, conversations, tastes and sounds.
I was staying with family and that meant I was not a tourist, just skimming the surface and seeing the tourist sights. I chatted to two different couples at the airport one the way there and the other on the way back. Both couples were on holiday to Rome to enjoy the Italy of the holiday brochures and I was aware of how different their experiences and perceptions of Italy, and the Italians, are to mine. I, too, enjoyed the beautiful blue skies and scenery and of course the wonderful food - a very important part of life there. I also fed my creative brain on the differences in culture, the language and particularly the use of language - the ways that expressions change from one language to another and where direct translations can be quite humorous. But for me there were also the discussions that happen in families and amongst friends and acquaintances about everything from Italian politics, the economy, the corruption and their perceptions of world affairs, to the moans about day to day life and memories of family who have now sadly passed away. I often find it frustrating as a wordsmith whenI do not have quite the facility with words that I am used to in English - my Italian is conversational and my vocabulary is not really as extensive as I would wish. But thankfully, it was adequate to join in conversations and to understand most of what was being discussed, except at times when the speaker's language was thick with dialect!
I was able to spend time writing beside a cosy log fire - it is January after all - although to me it was like a Scottish spring, bright and sunny most days with a bit of a chill in the air, but most people there thought it was very cold! I met some people who will make colourful characters, some so 'colourful' that they and their view of life may seem hardly credible to most people. Those are the most interesting to store away for future use.
I had a horse riding lesson and I learned even more when I acted as translator for someone who only spoke English and came for a riding lesson. I found out a lot about looking after horses, too. As far as I am concerned nothing is wasted because basically everything is research! This is Michela. A delightful character who was hand-reared when her mother died giving birth to her. She appeared to have an opinion about almost everything, if only I could speak Donkey! I am sure she deserves a story of her own. When chatting to an old aunt, I was told forcefully several times not to forget that she expected me to write the story of her and her siblings and parents, so that the future generations would not forget them all. I suppose that is the wish of many older people who see their own time and family becoming part of a forgotten past as the new generations appear. By the time the younger ones are old enough to ask questions so much is often lost and forgotten. It will be interesting to write something about the family members like my aunt and her parents, just for the family, to record these people and their lives.
Back home now I am distilling my thoughts and memories, images and ideas. I managed to get quite a bit of writing done while I was away and now I am keen to get back to the book again. My head is full of memories of crisp blue skies, lovely food and strong coffee, as well as stray thoughts in Italian, as my brain tries to switch gear back to English!
Travel, as has been often said, broadens the mind and it creates great images and ideas to feed the soul and the creative mind. So now it is time to get back to my desk and use all that inspiration!
------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Linda Strachan is the author of over 60 books for all ages from picture books to teenage novels and the writing handbook Writing For Children
She has written 10 Hamish McHaggis books illustrated by Sally J. Collins who also illustrated Linda's retelling of Greyfriars Bobby
Linda's latest YA novel is Don't Judge Me Linda isPatron of Reading to Liberton High School, Edinburgh
I write romantic mysteries for a niche market, my stories deal with art, travel, a bit of mayhem and romance. I might preface that with-I love art and I love to travel-and have been fortunate to be able to do so. The old adage write what you know and love is true.
When I started writing, I knew my novel would be set in Paris. In my youth, I lived there for a year, and have since gone back a few times. It stood to reason that my first romance should be set there.
New architectural structures reflect a modern appeal, but the old is appreciated and treasured. The Louvre now has Pei’s Pyramid at the entrance, a few buildings have been added, but the age old charm, the cobblestones, the meandering streets, the essence and soul are still very much there.
The first time I visited Bath, England, I told myself I must come back, and I did. My second book is set there. My third hotel book, my current WIP is set in magical and mysterious Venice. All three cities are mystical and romantic places. Venice has captured my heart perhaps as no other city-there is a constant pull to go back and see what I have missed.
My heroine is an artist, and through her eyes, I introduce my readers to my favorite artists, allow her to live in exciting places, give her mysteries to solve, and someone to love. The best of all worlds.
For me it is essential to visit the place I write about, get a sense of the culture, the everyday, mundane activities that make up our lives. The magical moment of sitting in a cafe, sipping an espresso, and watching people go by. An image is created that will allow a glimpse of that perfect intimate moment. A sculpture in a garden described so well that the reader can almost reach out and touch a sinew, that is the wonder of the written word.
Rodin has always set my pulse racing, his work is strong, exuberant, poignant to the point of agony, and sometimes even mischievous. I tried to bring that sense of joy and discovery to my hero in A Hotel in Paris, and hopefully to my readers. I find solace in art, for me it’s therapeutic. You don’t have to be an art scholar to enjoy it, it’s everywhere we turn, it surrounds us, all we have to do is take note.
Imagine tea at the Pump Room in Bath, and that first sip of the heavily scented Earl Grey tea, you take a deep whiff to savor the smell of the bergamot oil, take a bite of that a fresh scone still warm, loaded with clotted cream and strawberry preserves-except that I skip the cream and go directly for the jam, lots of jam. Those are all real memories that will enrich a story.
Visit a restaurant that has been in business since the early 1600s, in Bath and watch out as you step down on the crooked stairs and touch the warped wall, coated with gobs of thick paint as you continue your descent that doesn’t seem to end, and then you gingerly sit down in a rickety old chair and hope you won’t be sitting on the ancient brick floor instead.
Stand on top of the Rialto Bridge in Venice, look down at the Grand Canal, and the mesmerizing traffic below, boats gliding on water expertly and avoid contact. Sip an espresso in a cafe and listen to a gondolier serenade you from afar.
From the Rodin Museum in Paris, to the Pump Room in Bath, to the dark and narrow canals in Venice, where the water mysteriously shimmers in the moonlit night. It’s all there. Familiarity with a location makes it easier to write about the experience, it makes it come alive.
Even though I write contemporary romance mysteries, I love history and art, and that is what I write about. It goes back to the beginning, write what you know and love.
The unbelievable story of the Roman convent of Sant’Ambrogio in Rome is about crime and murder, feigned holiness, forbidden sexuality, and the abuse of power over others. Does this controversial story, which casts high dignitaries of the 19th century Catholic Church in a less than flattering light, need to be retold for the 21st century?
The answer is: absolutely. It is a mere stroke of luck for Church historical research that the well-hidden files from the Inquisition trial have been unearthed in the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
What happened to the German Princess Katharina von Hohenlohe at the place of her yearning, a contemplative convent in Rome, is most probably an isolated case: the young novice mistress Maria Luisa feigned to have visions and to work miracles in order to manipulate her surroundings and to satisfy her needs. Supported by various accomplices and protected by mighty men she swept her opponents out of her way – literally under the pope’s eyes.
The files provide evidence of how dangerous exaggerated piety and blind obedience can be, producing a disastrous combination of power, sex, and false holiness within the Roman convent of Sant’Ambrogio.
The nuns were deemed to be “buried alive”; shielded from the outer world that was perceived as threatening by superiors who demanded strict obedience. However, the nuns of the convent weren’t dumb and the supposed saint, Maria Luisa, was always confronted with antagonists. Ultimately, however, she managed to cover up even her worst crimes with outrageous lies about the devil in human form, letters written by the Virgin Mary, and divine punishments. She established a perfidious system that brought unpopular young nuns to the point of praying for their own death. The confessors were no critical authority at all – on the contrary, they themselves were Maria Luisa’s greatest admirers. However the history of Sant’Ambrogio is full of surprises: in the end, Maria Luisa, for instance, appears as the distressed victim of a system that she herself had perfected, and the Roman Inquisition proves to be comparably mild despite its ill fame.
But how did a false saint manage to turn the heads of half of the curia? In order to understand how Maria Luisa achieved this, it must be considered in its context in 19th century Rome. Maria Luisa would have never got away with her lies if she was not part of an environment that wanted to believe her at all costs. The atmosphere in the Vatican was heavy with anxiety, as Pope Pius IX had long lost the support of broad circles of the population and rightly feared he might lose power in the Church state. In 1848, he was forced to flee the Revolution and go into exile. The pope himself increasingly sought refuge in a naïve childish faith. He was convinced that the Mother of God had saved him from drowning when he was a child and that one day she would descend from heaven in order to defend the Church state with the angelic hosts. Simply put, he and those around him wistfully longed for miracles.
The Sant’Ambrogio scandal reveals the dark side of this superficially pious environment, and it put an indelible stain on the history of the Catholic Church that can still be seen today. This is because Pope Pius IX and his predecessors were involved in the scandal of Sant’Ambrogio. Maria Luisa was very close to some figures connected to Neo-scholasticism, the predominant theological orientation at the time, and to the most eminent fathers of the First Vatican Council, which proclaimed the controversial dogmas of the infallibility of the pope and of his primacy of jurisdiction. The story of the convent in scandal tells a lot about the dialectics of enlightened modernity: it is about canting zealots put on the defensive and their longing for a newly enchanted world, in which saints proclaim simple truths, good and evil are easily discernible, the end justifies the means, and in which there always is hope for a miracle. Furthermore, Maria Luisa’s power strategies tell much about the role of women in the Catholic Church of the time, which was clearly dominated by the clergy.
Not even in the 19th century was the Catholic Church as monolithic as it appears from anticlerical clichés. The adherents of mysticism as well as the supporters of rationalism contended for influence in the Vatican. On a church-political level they pursued different strategies; the ultramontane adherents of anti-modernism were confronted with the moderate liberals. The Inquisition trial became a struggle for power between the two most important parties in the Curia; the basic conflict in the background is recognizable if put under a microscope.
A photograph taken in the Santa Croce Cathedral, October 2012, while researching the book that would become One Thing Stolen.
To the left, the mosaics of colored glass tell us stories, suggest a beginning or an end.
To the right, no colors, no stories, just a little framing and the blast of temporal sun. My story, the one I was writing, lived somewhere in there. Still amorphous, still radically strange, but beckoning. It hurt to look at it. I could not stop looking at it. It suffered itself into being.
I suffered, too.
Now, less than two months from the book's launch date, I ponder this strange existence of wading through the formidable dark toward a fledging, heartbreaking story, while thinking not at all about what the market will actually bear. What is the category? What is the tagline? What is the label? This book has none. I have flirted with doom. And persisted.
I have made reference to the challenges that beset me (self-afflicted, surely) as I set out to write One Thing Stolen. Today, in Huffington Post, I'm write of the fears I was writing toward during the process.
The piece begins like this, below, and carries forward here.
There is a girl who only just recently knew who she was, what she wanted, the dimensions of now. A girl who has a retro-minded best friend and a reputation for ingenious ideas about night snow, urban gardens, and the songs that rise up from Philadelphia streets. She has a mother and a brother, both loved. She has a father obsessed with the Florentine flood of November 1966--that unforeseen spill of the Arno River, that mud that clawed through homes and stores and across the face of Cimabue's "Crucifix," among so many other treasures. This girl has moved with her family to Florence. This girl is losing herself.
It's hard to say, precisely, when she began to peel away. When an obsession with nests and nest building became her terrible secret. When thieving erupted as a necessary part of her existence. When words began to clot and clog and answers became elusive.
It's hard to say when all this started. It's impossible to know how it will end.
Beloved British author Shirley Hughes is best known for her delightful picture books about preschooler Alfie and his toddler sister Annie Rose. In 2012, at the ripe age of 84, she published in Great Britain her first children's novel, Hero on a Bicycle, which was published in 2013 by Candlewick here in the U.S.
Set in Florence in 1944, this novel centers around thirteen-year old Paolo. He hates the Nazis but feels powerless--he's stuck between being a child and being old enough to be useful. Paolo lives with his mother, Rosemary, an English woman who married an Italian, and his teenaged sister Constanza, a pretty girl who catches the attention of the Nazi officers stationed in town. Seeking a few thrills, Paolo rides his bicycle around town in the dark--past curfew. But when he runs into a group of partisans--Italian resistance fighters--he becomes their messenger. Soon his family is intimately involved, taking in downed Allied pilots, whom the resistance is trying to get to safety at the Allied lines. Soon Paolo and his family are literally on the front lines of the conflict, and Paolo will get his chance to play the hero--sooner than he may have expected.
This is a slim novel (at 213 pages) that is a good choice for younger readers who are interested in World War II. While providing plenty of suspense and a sense of danger, Hughes does not include any graphic violence in the novel that would be unsuitable for younger middle-grade readers. Most of the novels for young people about World War II seem to involve the Holocaust or Jewish issues in some way; this novel provides a different perspective, as it focuses on the partisans and the Allied soldiers to fought to free Italy from the Nazi occupiers.
Rome has one of the biggest cruise ports in Europe, and that suits me quite well. It is one of those ancient cities that will take more than one visit to see, and many of the cruises start in Rome. I try to stay for two or three days before boarding the ship. You don’t want to arrive on the same day, especially if it’s an overseas destination, that is much too risky, and Rome is always well worth the extra time. There are many hotels that fit all budgets.
Even if you spend a whole day in the Vatican alone, it is not enough, and would also prove quite exhausting, if nothing else the huge crowds would do you in. They say about twenty five to thirty thousand people visit the Vatican daily. The best I can do is five or six hours at a time.
The treasures housed within that community are unbelievable, it is a Mecca for art lovers. Michelangelo and the Pieta and the Sistine Chapel are sites that once seen will never be forgotten, and must be seen again if at all possible.The Chapel, a rectangular room in the basement is all Michelangelo, it is bare of furnishings. It is a place to pay homage to a magnificent artist and his immeasurable artistry. It will leave you breathless.
I have done independent tours to the big sites, but now I book a tour to the Vatican and the other special sites because of all the tourists, it is easier and faster to get in. You don’t wait in the long lines, and at my age it is well worth it.
For this upcoming trip I booked two tours through Viator; Vatican Walking Tour- this tour includes the Sistene Chapel, Raphael’s Rooms and of course St. Peter’s; after the tour I can wonder around on my own. The other tour I booked through them is the Ancient Rome and Colosseum Walking Tour.
I’m going with my grandchildren, and it’s their first visit to Europe-I wanted to make sure they would get a decent historical introduction to this magnificent city.
If the stop is part of the cruise, I book through the cruise line, for one excellent reason, if there is a delay, they will wait for you. It has happened where the bus was delayed for about an hour. There was a general announcement about the delay, and we departed once the bus returned to port. That is not the case if you book through an outside agency. For me, it is not worth the extra stress to make sure I’ll be back on time, especially true if the visiting site is a bit of a distance from the port....but I digress.
Ancient Rome offers the Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon, these are all places that must be seen, the age and history will astound. There is also the lively Rome, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, so tourist packed that you have to wait, and weave your way to get up close and personal. The outdoor restaurants, the entertainment at said places, where you’ll get a troubadour serenading you, and it’s best to have some change ready for a tip. Rome is a walking city, and, comfortable shoes area must, although I have seen a few Italian women wear heel; how they managed is beyond me. Just walking the old streets is a delight.
Then of course there are the espresso stops, I prefer to linger, the Italians prefer to stand and gulp theirs. It is less expensive to stand and drink your coffee, if you sit down there is a charge for that privilege. However by the time I need a coffee break, I also need a sit-down break to recharge.
I try and avoid the height of the tourist season, it is far more expensive, and overcrowded and prefer to go early Spring or late Fall. Sometimes that is not always possible, as in this trip the timing depended upon the kiddies and their activities.
This enchanting romp through the Italian countryside will have any girl, or girl at heart, melting with jealousy. Cute Italian boys and breathtakingly described scenery will make readers want to grab their passports.
So grateful to have ONE THING STOLEN included in this Spring 2015 Children's Sneak Previews from Publishers Weekly:
Chronicle channels the Force for Star Wars Short and Sweet: A New Hope by Jack and Holman Wang, a 12-word retelling; I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illus. by Tom Lichtenheld, celebrating everyday moments of abundance; The Water and the Wild by Kathryn Elise Ormsbee, a fantasy debut featuring a portal in a bejeweled tree; One Thing Stolen by Beth Kephart, about a girl who develops strange behaviors when she moves with her professor father to Italy for six months; and Vanishing Girl by Elena Dunkle and Clare B. Dunkle, a mother-daughter memoir featuring daughter Elena’s struggle with anorexia.
The Venice Film Festival, which is the world's oldest film festival, announced the line-up today for their 71st edition. The festival is known for not giving much consideration to animated cinema, but they always throw in a few animated films.
A vacation always inspires me to write, whether it is in my current WIP, or a travel article, it doesn’t really matter, the inspiration is there. This time I visited some of my favorite places in Europe, chief among them was a stay in Venice...and what a visit it was.
The concierge at the hotel was able to arrange a private visit to a Murano furnace, the Schiavon Art Team. I have seen a working furnace before that was geared toward the tourists straight off the boat or the ferry, as it were, and I have stopped in many Murano and Venetianglass stores.For the most part the pieces are pretty similar in the shops, but this furnace had some spectacular pieces of art. I also happen to love glass, and Murano is famous worldwide for their glass.
I was totally unprepared for the sheer beauty and originality of the work, contemporary glass art work that came to life when properly lit.I loved every piece I saw, they were not the common pieces sold everywhere you turned, but unique pieces with astounding colors and textures.Terrific variation of African baskets with dark reds, black and tan deep opaque colors that if not touched would pass for a woven basket. The work is sublime.
Not only was I able to watch a master glass blower at work, I was also allowed to take all the pictures I wanted. Starting with the furnaces, the annealing area, polishing room and the galleries. Truly a memorable experience.
Most were custom pieces ordered by individual clients and businesses, but there were many pieces for sale in the gallery upstairs, as well as a gallery down the street from the furnace that is open to the public.
It was a unique experience for me, because A Hotel in Venice is partially set in Murano and deals with the intrigues of blowing glass, age old secret formulas and lack of new talent. It takes many years to become a master blower, and it is incredibly hard work. Try blowing through a tube and shape a piece of molten glass. If it’s your first try, your face will turn beet red-the effort is tremendous-but the master blower makes it look effortless.
The visit was a most memorable and inspirational experience, one I will always cherish.
As a side note, Blood Art will be free this weekend on Amazon. I want to introduce my favorite vampire Nikolai Volkov.http://www.amazon.com/Blood-Art-Margot-Justes-ebook/dp/B00FWA8YMO
Stefano Marra is a versatile designer hailing from the southern part of Italy. His portfolio is filled with examples of work that highlight his ability to use texture and shading to successfully achieve a variety of effects. These skills have not gone unnoticed and have landed him editorial commissions from a variety of publications including Il Sore 24 Ore, Wired UK, and Datum.
I have a single copy of ONE THING STOLEN, my novel about an impossible obsession set against the backdrop of Florence, Italy, available to a U.S. reader.
I invite those who are interested to leave a comment indicating one thing you most associate with Florence—a building, a landscape feature, an icon, a dish, a way of walking, a kind of weather, anything. I will then attempt to write a blog post referencing every single comment.
(I anticipate a mean mind twister.)
The winner will be randomly chosen on November 15th.
Perhaps you wonder why I have just one copy to give away? The answer is that I've been busy creating packages for the many people who helped make this book a reality.
Dr. Bruce Miller, for example, of the University of California-San Francisco Memory and Aging Center, who shed light on the disease that my young Nadia faces.
Emily Rosner and Maurizio Panichi, whom I met in the Florence bookstore, Paperback Exchange, and who helped me understand the 1966 flooding of the Arno and the Mud Angels who came to the rescue; Maurizio's own experiences are woven through this story.
Laura Gori, who directs the Scuola del Cuoio, and where I learned the art of leather working from a master.
Mike Cola, a dear friend and Renaissance man, who talked to me about birds.
Kathy Coffey, who sent, through the mail, the book that I needed, following her own trip to Florence.
My brother-in-law, Mario, who helped me with translations.
Wendy Robards, who read early on and kept me grounded.
My students Katie Goldrath and Maggie Ercolani, who deeply inspired me.
And a few others.
Leaving me with one galley for posterity's sake and one for one of you.
I’m writing from Palermo where I’ve been teaching a course on the legacy of Troy. Myths and fairy tales lie on all sides in this old island. It’s a landscape of stories and the past here runs a live wire into the present day. Within the same hour, I saw an amulet from Egypt from nearly 3000 years ago, and passed a young, passionate balladeer giving full voice in the street to a ballad about a young woman – la baronessa Laura di Carini – who was killed by her father in 1538. He and her husband had come upon her alone with a man whom they suspected to be her lover. As she fell under her father’s stabbing, she clung to the wall, and her hand made a bloody print that can still be seen in the castle at Carini – or so I was told. The cantastorie – the ballad singer – was giving the song his all. He was sincere and funny at the same time as he knelt and frowned, mimed and lamented.
The eye of Horus, or Wadjet, was found in a Carthaginian’s grave in the city and it is still painted on the prows of fishing boats, and worn as a charm all over the Mediterranean and the Middle East, in order to ward off dangers. This function is, I believe, one of the deepest reasons for telling stories in general, and fairy tales in particular: the fantasy of hope conjures an antidote to the pain the plots remember. The street singer was young, curly haired, and had spent some time in Liverpool, he told me later, but he was back home now, and his song was raising money for a street theatre called Ditirammu (dialect for Dithryamb), that performs on a tiny stage in the stables of an ]old palazzo in the district called the Kalsa. Using a mixture of puppetry, song, dance, and mime, the troupe give local saints’ legends, traditional tales of crusader paladins versus dastardly Moors, and pastiches of Pinocchio, Snow White, and Alice in Wonderland.
Their work captures the way fairy tales spread through different media and can be played, danced or painted and still remain recognisable: there are individual stories which keep shape-shifting across time, and there is also a fairytale quality which suffuses different forms of expression (even recent fashion designs have drawn on fairytale imagery and motifs). The Palermo theatre’s repertoire also reveals the kinship between some history and fairy tale: the hard facts enclosed and memorialised in the stories. Although the happy ending is a distinguishing feature of fairy tales, many of them remember the way things were – Bluebeard testifies to the kinds of marriages that killed Laura di Carini.
A few days after coming across the cantastorie in the street, I was taken to see the country villa on the crest of Capo d’Orlando overlooking the sea, where Casimiro Piccolo lived with his brother and sister. The Piccolo siblings were rich Sicilian landowners, peculiar survivals of a mixture of luxurious feudalism and austere monasticism. A dilettante and dabbler in the occult, Casimiro believed in fairies. He went out to see them at twilight, the hour recommended by experts such as William Blake, who reported he had seen a fairy funeral, and the Revd. Robert Kirk, who had the information on good authority from his parishioners in the Highlands, where fairy abductions, second sight, and changelings were a regular occurrence in the seventeenth century.
Casimiro’s elder brother, Lucio, a poet who had a brief flash of fame in the Fifties, was as solitary, odd-looking, and idiosyncratic as himself, and the siblings lived alone with their twenty servants, in the midst of a park with rare shrubs and cacti from all over the world, their beautiful summer villa filled with a vast library of science, art, and literature, and marvellous things. They slept in beds as narrow as a discalced Carmelite’s, and never married. They loved their dogs, and gave them names that are mostly monosyllables, often sort of orientalised in a troubling way. They range from ‘Aladdin’ to ‘Mameluk’ to ‘Book’ and the brothers built them a cemetery of their own in the garden.
Casimiro was a follower of Paracelsus, who had distinguished the elemental beings as animating matter: gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders. Salamanders, in the form of darting, wriggling lizards, are plentiful on the baked stones of the south, but the others are the cousins of imps and elves, sprites and sirens, and they’re not so common. The journal Psychic News, to which Casimiro subscribed, inspired him to try to take photographs of the apparitions he saw in the park of exotic plants around the house. He also ordered various publications of the Society of Psychical Research and other bodies who tried to tap immaterial presences and energies. He was hoping for images like the famous Cottingley images of fairies sunbathing or dancing which Conan Doyle so admired. But he had no success. Instead, he painted: a fairy punt poled by a hobgoblin through the lily pads, a fairy doctor with a bag full of shining golden instruments taking the pulse of a turkey, four old gnomes consulting a huge grimoire held up by imps, etiolated genies, turbaned potentates, and eastern sages. He rarely left Sicily, or indeed, his family home, and he went on painting his sightings in soft, rich watercolour from 1943 to 1970 when he died.
His work looks like Victorian or Edwardian fairy paintings. Had this reclusive Sicilian seen the crazed visions of Richard Dadd, or illustrations by Arthur Rackham or John Anster Fitzgerald? Or even Disney? Disney was looking very carefully at picture books when he formed the famous characters and stamped them with his own jokiness. Casimiro doesn’t seem to be in earnest, and the long-nosed dwarfs look a little bit like self-mockery. It is impossible to know what he meant, if he meant what he said, or what he believed. But the fact remains, for a grown man to believe in fairies strikes us now as pretty silly.
The Piccolo family’s cousin, close friend and regular visitor was Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard, and he wrote a mysterious and memorable short story about a classics professor who once spent a passionate summer with a mermaid. But tales of fairies, goblins, and gnomes seem to belong to an altogether different degree of absurdity from a classics professor meeting a siren.
And yet, the Piccolo brothers communicated with Yeats, who held all kinds of beliefs. He smelted his wonderful poems from a chaotic rubble of fairy lore, psychic theories, dream interpretation, divinatory methods, and Christian symbolism: “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
Featured image credit: Capo d’Orlando, by Chtamina. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
I asked readers of this blog to tell me something about the way they think of or remember Florence. What is that building, that bit of landscape, that dish, that way of walking, that weather that is Florence to you?
On my blog and over Facebook they answered—so many lovely responses that I find myself simply wanting to list them here. To you, to those who stopped by, Florence is (in part):
The trip Florinda and her art major husband will take to Italy before this decade is through.
That moment when Sandra Bullock says, in "While You Were Sleeping," "And there would be a stamp in my passport and it would say Italy on it."
A statue of Bacchus.
The stories Hilary's backpacking sister would tell.
The cement slab that sloped down toward the river.
The smell of leathergoods shops on the Ponte Vecchio.
Florence and the Machine.
A woman named Florence who helped Lisa feel hopeful about staying intellectually engaged at any age (and being kind while you are at it).
Outdoor cafes and hot waiters who are working to pay for their art.
The Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo, a city close to the city where George Clooney got married.
Two small gold rings.
An art history class.
The nearby beaches.
The similarities between the Arno and the Schuylkill (woman after my own heart, that Victoria Marie Lees)
A mother, now gone, who lived the dream of traveling Italy.
(And so much more.)
This morning I've asked my sleepy husband to give me a number (each entry had a number). His number correlates with Amy, who said that Florence is, to her, the cement slab that sloped down toward the river (and where she wrote in her journal).
Amy, I can't tell you how cool it is that you have been randomly selected, for a very major scene in One Thing Stolen takes place on that very cement slab. Please send along your mailing address so that I can send you a copy of the book.
Looking forward to seeing my Chronicle friends and the teachers of NCTE (and wonderful, intelligent, blessing-of-a-friend Debbie Levy!!!!!!) next Friday/Saturday in Washington, DC, where more copies of One Thing Stolen will be shared. I'll be at the Chronicle Booth at 3 PM on Friday.
Once again, the Chronicle team has done an exquisite job of creating a teacher's guide.
This time the guide was created in support of One Thing Stolen, a story about dangerous obsessions, an Italian city, an historic flood, and hope, due out in April 2015 (more on the book here). We'll be posting a live link soon. This, above, is just a fragment. It moves me deeply to think of someone giving a book such close attention, pondering its heart and lessons, and crafting (and designing) a guide this lovely.
The teacher's guide to Going Over, another Chronicle masterpiece, can be found here.
Title: A Letter for Leo Written and illustrated by: Sergio Ruzzier Published By: Clarion Books, New York, 2014 Themes/Topics: postmen, friendship, letters, birds, weasels Suitable for ages: 3-5 Fiction, 32 pages Opening: Leo is the mailman of a little old town Synopsis: Postman Leo … Continue reading →