Friday, August 11, 2017

Lullaby for My Sister - Italian-Canadian family drama by Nancy Barone

Ciao campagni! 
Today's guest is Nancy Barone, the author of a family drama Lullaby for My Sister set in the Italian community in Canada. Yes, you can expect some Italian stereotypes - some flattering and some critical.

When Valentina and Lucy Mancino’s mother died, and their father turned to alcohol to cope, Valentina quickly understood it was up to her to run the household and take care of her little sister. But Valentina was only nine years old. And when their new step-mother moved in, along with her two sons, Val also knew things were about to change for the worse.

Fifteen years later, while Lucy is flailing in life, Val is running a successful career, but she’s also hiding a terrible secret. She soon discovers that her former home is suppressing secrets of its own—many unspeakable truths are dying to be told.

My thoughts
Having almost lost my mother at the age of seven, I certainly felt very emotional reading this book. There are very few things that can scare a child more than hearing "You have to be a big, strong girl". In her novel "A Lullaby for My Sister", Nancy Barone explores the nightmarish scenario of two sisters, five and nine, losing their mother under mysterious circumstances, and their father and uncle dropping cryptic messages and not allowing them to attend the funeral. Men do not deal with bereavement well. The girl's father, whom the older daughter Val, the narrator of the novel calls by his first name Luigi, plunges into alcoholism, while dumping parenting responsibilities on his 9-year old. To keep herself from coming apart, Val corresponds with her dead mother through letters. Fast forward twenty-three years. Val is a successful career woman, determined not to let her dysfunctional childhood hold her down, but her younger sister Lucy is unconsciously resentful, immature and detached from reality. The scenario is so common, it will make you cry. In terms of the style and the content, for those of you who read family sagas and women's fiction, some of it will sound like deja vu. I mean it in a nice way. It's not that the author is aiming to massage the readers' traditional sweet spots by combining familiar elements. It's just that what she describes is so common. The characters and the situations are recognizable and relatable. A picture perfect mother in a summer dress with a string of pearls, battling her demons - and bequeathing them onto her family after her death. You will find yourself nodding and shaking your head.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

1906 - a novel of the San Francisco earthquake and fire

Commies and heretics,
Do not miss this interview with a Renaissance man by the name James Dalessandro. An acclaimed author of historical and crime fiction, a filmmaker and lover of opera, he joins us today to discuss his literary and cinematic projects. He is best known for his novel 1906 depicting the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Dalessandro has held a few jobs that many people in the world of literature and performing jobs would consider dream jobs. However, even someone as accomplished and well connected as him runs into challenges. Your humble host Connecticut Commie thanks our guest for his time and candor.

MJN: Your novel 1906 describes the great San Francisco earthquake and fire. Disaster films having become quite popular in the past few decades, especially with the advancements in special effects. If your novel was to be turned into a movie, which director would you pick? As a screenwriter, I am sure you have thought of that.

JD: Barry Levinson was the first signed director, then Brad Bird at Pixar was on the project for 6 or 7 years - it was supposed to be the first live action for him and Pixar.   But everybody kept changing the script and the story.   I would have to say Peter Jackson would be my first choice:  he knows how to blend real story telling and visual effects.   The problem with "disaster" films - I really loathe that name - is that they've become all disaster and no story.   After 1906 was dumped by Pixar and Brad Bird, Warner Brothers put "San Andreas" into production.  The hokiest, most preposterous pile of garbage, but everyone kept saying "but the visual effects were so good."  Is that we've become:  we give up history, story, human drama for things that a 14 year old can do on his laptop?    The Rock rides to their rescue of his daughter in a rubber boat, and forget that a million people just drowned?    Peter Jackson would be good.  Right now the film is in limbo... the money they spent in going away from my story is appalling.  The dumped the characters, the truth about what happened - the lies, the cover up, the tragedy and heroism.  It might never get made.  Sadly. 

MJN: 1906 is narrated by a young female reporter Annalisa Passarelli. I am sure that in the early 20th century there were not many female journalists, and their activity was usually restricted to writing articles on the topics of fashion, housekeeping, and if lucky, art and entertainment. What were some of the educational institutions in the early 1900s that produced female journalists? Berkeley comes to mind.  

JD: The most influential journalist of all time was Nellie Bly from the New York World.   Staring in the 1880's, she went undercover to expose the horrors of mental hospitals, baby peddling rings, wholesale political corruption.   She went around the world in less than 80 days, alone, to show it could be done after the publication of Jules Verne's novel - the first person to solo circumnavigate the globe.   The most famous journalist in America at the time.  The women's rights movement was in serious swing, and women were rebelling and fighting for rights and equality.   Nellie was the inspiration for my fictional Annalisa Passarelli and lots of other young female writers and journalists.   What was Emma Goldman's statement - well-behaved women never changed anything.  I need a strong woman amidst all that testosterone.   I'm married to one of those women.

MJN: I noticed that several of your novels are set in San Francisco and involve the opera house as a setting. Do you find that the glamor of high art makes the grisly component of murder and mayhem in your novels more jarring?

JD: It kind of turned out that way.  I'm a big opera lover:  I'm writing the libretto for an opera right now, based on one of my film scripts, called THE ITALIAN GIRL.   I like to say that I have a lot of low friends in high places.. .and vice versa.  Smart people with class tending bar and building houses.   I try to see the big picture in films and books - the little guy and gal set against a big back drop.  The Tenderloin to Pacific Heights.   Opera is the most amazing music, and I'm a fan of it all.  I wrote the House of Blues Radio Hour for Dan Ackroyd and created "Rock On" with Ray Manzarek of the doors.   I used to ace the Downbeat Magzine blindfold test to identify artists in new jazz releases.  But opera is heaven to me, particularly the Italians - Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verde and Puccini.  I have a dog named Giacomo Poochini.   Americans don't like it because they don't understand the words.   I'm an Italian citizen, I speak the language fairly well.  I have dual citizenship.   Life is too short not to love opera.

MJN: One of the critics compared you work to that of Dashiell Hammett. It is always scary to read what the critics have to say about your work. Some of the comparisons are surprising. Have you ever been surprised by a comparison made by a critic? Do you feel flattered when your work gets compared to that of other iconic authors? I imagine, some writers having mixed feelings. On one hand, it's flattering, but on another hand, you probably wonder, "Why must I be compared to XYZ? Doesn't my work stand on its own two feet?"

JD: Some people take umbrage, I find it tremendously gratifying to be compared to Dashiell Hammett, who created the modern Noir detective thriller.  A brilliant writer.  That was "Bohemian Heart" you're referring too.  Another one compared me to Raymond Chandler - given the snappy one liners and metaphors from my P.I. Frankie Fagen. It's certainly more like Chandler's work.   Both were great writers.    None of that bothers me at all, I find it encouraging.   What bothers me are comments that question our integrity or scholarship - no writer earns universal praise.   I just read a review from a reader, online, who said she had to wade through a dumb, phony plot about political corruption before she got to the earthquake in 1906.   That dumb, phony plot is exactly what happened.  The day before the 1906 earthquake, prosecutors handed down indictments for the Mayor, all 18 members of the Board of Supervisors, the Police Chief and half the judges in town.  It was a plot hatched in the Oval Office of Theodore Roosevelt to to go war on urban corruption.  And those under indictment used the fire and chaos to fight back at their enemies, burning their houses, and hailed themselves as the great saviors of San Francisco.  It was bullshit.   The Army got drunk, shot hundreds of innocent people as suspected looters, then they all lied about the death count.   They used dynamite to stop the fires and all that did was spread it.   If that's a dumb, phony plot then the moon is blue cheese.  But you learn to slough it off.  It doesn't mean anything, other than some people are too lazy to look up a few facts before they slam someone.  Me:  I look before I shoot.   That stuff annoys me, but it doesn't bother me.   Dashiell Hammett - he's the Buddha. 

MJN: You have a history of working with large publishing houses. You also mentioned that you had a hard time selling your novels set in San Francisco to a New York publisher, because the setting was not "local", and the publisher feared that New Yorkers would feel "alienated". I imagine this is not the most ridiculous excuse you ever heard. Did you ever circle back with that editor after your novel was released via a Californian publisher?

JD: I've had my books published by Putnam Penguin (Citizen Jane) and St. Martin's Press (BohemianHeart).  And yes, it was the dumbest excuse I've ever heard.   Several publishers called 1906 - which was the greatest disaster in American history and the victim of a century long web of lies and coverups - a "regional story."  So was Hurricane Katrina, by that criteria.  That would make the Civil War a border conflict?   A lot of the New York publishing establishment - not all, but a lot - dismiss San Francisco as a pretend urban city that doesn't measure up.   Wallace Stegner is one of the great writers of the American West (Angle of Repose), won the Pulitzer Prize and was never reviewed in the NY Times.   That's an insult.   The NY Times once dismissed Jack London's "Call of the Wild" as just another dog book.   I love the NY Times, can't live without reading the Sunday Times, including Arts & Leisures from cover to cover.   But we're provincial and marginal, and that's unnecessary.   We gave the world Mark Twain, Jack London, Dashiell Hammet, Gertrude Stein, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner.   Amy Tan.  Even Allen Gingsberg broke through here.  Find me a city that can match that list.   They'll do a book set in Appalachia or the rural South, but San Francisco - not so much.    So I wanted a San Francisco publisher all along, and that's what I got - Chronicle Books.    And they're now all out in Digital/Kindle, which has given all of us a new life - our books are never out of print.  That's a gift from the tech world, and for that we are all grateful. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Chelles Abbey: a Medieval oasis of girl power - and the grinch who crashed the party!

Greetings, heretics!

Another post in my 15th century French bishops series. Today's guest of dishonor is Louis de Beaumont de la ForĂȘt, who served as the Bishop of Paris from 1473 until his death in 1492. He had spent the first decade of his episcopal tenure trying to tighten up the loose screws left behind by his predecessor Guillaume Chartier. Guillaume had been too busy locking horns with the king to pay attention to the discipline in his precinct, so Louis inherited Notre-Dame de Paris in a state of chaos, with priests and deacons roaming freely, flirting with women, reading heretical books, quoting Italian humanists and talking about the impending Reformation. Naturally, Louis de Beaumont, a reactionary, was horrified. He embarked on a mission to reverse the progressive "damage" done by his negligent predecessor. When Louis accepted the position, he was in his mid twenties and full of energy. It took him a decade to get any traction. He had no leadership experience, so he had no idea how to establish his authority and restore the atmosphere of austerity and holiness. At the same time, he did not want to openly admit that he had trouble controlling his own men.

He decided to flex his muscles by asserting his power over the Chelles Abbey. In the early 1480s he made that oasis of Medieval girl power his next target.The Chelles Abbey was a Frankish monastery founded in the 7th century. Originally it was intended for women, but eventually it gained a reputation for being a epicenter of scholarship, so more men were drawn to that place, establishing a parallel male community. Thus a double monastery was created, with men and women living, learning and exploring in close - and dangerous - proximity to each other. You can imagine all those clandestine keg parties similar to those happening on college campuses today.

The majority of nuns at the Chelles Abbey were daughters, widows, sisters, nieces and even ex-mistresses of various European monarchs. They were worldly, scholarly, ambitious women who did not necessarily focus on religion. Overtime, this trend affected the monastic discipline adversely. The focus was not spiritual refinement but scholarship. Many of the books stored at the famous scriptorium were of questionable content and marginally heretical. Naturally, Louis de Beaumont did not like the idea of women having too much forbidden knowledge, too much autonomy, too many progressive ideas. He saw the string of blue-blooded, wilful abbesses as a problem. So in 1480s he started sticking his fingers into the abbey. Catherine de Lignieres was the abbess at the time. Louis perceived her as an "enabler" of frivolities and tried to have her removed and replaced by someone he approved of, someone more conservative, who would support more traditional monastic values. As expected, he failed. The Chelles Abbey had strong ties to the cathedral in Reims, and Pierre de Laval, the present archbishop, put a stop to Louis' attempts to bully the abbess. In the end, it was not "girl power" that saved the abbey's autonomy - it was intervention from a stronger man. Pierre de Laval was older, richer, more influential than Louis de Beaumont. Pierre was closely linked to the royal family and rubbed elbows with the king, so he had more leverage. The bishop of Paris had to back off. In other words, a woman-hating bully was defeated by a woman-friendly bully.

The story does have a bittersweet ending. The Chelles Abbey did lose some of is autonomy eventually. Starting from 1500, through a degree of the Parlement of Paris, abbesses were elected every three years with the possibility of reelection, which prevented a single woman from having too much influence over the culture of the abbey. In mid-16th century the new king abolished the election and resumed the appointment of the abbesses himself. Once again, the abbey fell into the secular authority.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The history of Medieval organ in French cathedrals

 Every great cathedral has its embarrassing secret, a shameful little inadequacy that historians and tour guides prefer to downplay. Notre-Dame de Paris has its own secret: for a good portion of the Middle Ages it had a really lousy organ. Hard to believe, isn't it? Comparing apples to apples, the sister cathedral in Reims was a much more mature Gothic building with superior acoustics. It was there that the Medieval giant of ecclesiastic music, Guillaume de Machaut, served as a canon, composed and performed his pieces. He simply would not be able to fully manifest his genius in Paris. 

To be fair, installing an organ is always a huge gamble - artistic, financial and acoustic. The architects can do their due diligence, make all the right calculations in terms of the height of the ceiling and the width of the windows, use the best materials, and the end result is still not stellar. That was the case at Notre-Dame de Paris. The first instrument was installed circa 1330, and it was a dud pretty much from the start. Take two. By early 1400s a second instrument was installed on a high and narrow stone gallery above the western portal while the old organ was still being used. The new endeavor took us from bad to worse. Finally, 70 years later, in 1473 a major restoration began, including service of a large number of pipes. The process would take fifty years! According to some sources, the restorations were paid for by the Reims precinct. Louis de Beaumont de Foret, who served as the Bishop at the time, was reluctant to dish out a considerable amount of money on the instrument that nobody seemed to be able to fix. 

Naturally, one would wonder what kind of man would it take to operate such a temperamental instrument. An organist is much more than a musician. He (forgive me for defaulting to the masculine pronoun - we are talking about Late Middle Ages here) must be a musical theorist, a sound engineer, and above all, a diplomat. In addition to building a relationship with every key, every pedal of the organ, he must build a relationship with every stone of the building itself. That's the easy part. Try building a relationship with the clergy, the choir and the people who come to mass. All those diplomatic obligations do not leave much room for personal artistic ego. 

During the Middle Ages, the job of the organist usually went to an older, calmer musician, whose job was to serve as the "glue" and not necessarily showcase his own talent. Notre-Dame de Paris did not really start hosting truly remarkable musicians until the early 1600s. The first notable world-class organist was Charles Racquet, who was appointed to the position in 1618. Until then, the position was not all that desirable or fulfilling from the artistic standpoint, as there were too many physical and political restrictions.

As a historical novelist who likes to write about some of the more obscure historical periods and figures, I became obsessed with the idea of writing about the ecclesiastic music tradition in Paris on the cusp of the Reformation. After the death of Guillaume de Machaut, there was a huge void in the world of church music. Pulling figures out of obscurity gives the author a lot more creative freedom.  You can weave loose strings of biographies as well as urban lore to create an archetype. "Blood of the Stone Prince" is a tragicomic account of a fictitious child genius who rose to dangerous prominence in the 1470s. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Half-Siberian kitten needs a home

Commies, I normally do not post ads on my blog, but this lovely half-Siberian kitten needs a new home. He is a product of accidental mating of a purebred Siberian queen with an anonymous, undocumented male. The family is moving to Colorado soon and would like to find a new home for this kitten beforehand, if possible. He is going to have semi-long hair and his mother's coloring. If you are interested in this spunky illegitimate, please contact me. He is currently in Rye, NY.

I hope you do not judge the young mother too harshly. Sometimes hormones get the best of us and override common sense and modesty. Everybody makes mistakes. Innocent children should not be ostracized and penalized for the indiscretions of their mothers. Thank you, and God bless!

Monday, June 5, 2017

"Pay for my Sin" by Iryna Combs - a daringly literal approach to the Apocalypse

Maria is a Christian woman with one purpose – save her corrupt family from eternal death. As the apocalypse rages around her, she makes an unlikely friendship with one lost soul and the two women flee into the southern wilderness. Forced to take shelter in a long-forgotten church, they fight to survive as all hell breaks loose outside.

My thoughts:
Following her bestselling debut sci-fi novel Black Wings, Iryna K. Combs comes back with a bold, graphic and eloquent Biblical fantasy. You do not need to be a born-again Christian to enjoy the novel for its literary value, but it does help if you understand some of the religious references. The author takes a pretty literal, straightforward approach to the Apocalypse - as the cover and the title suggest. I applaud her for taking the risk and the literal approach that has been out of favor with authors and cinematic directors. There is a movie from the 1990s called The Rapture, where the end of the world happens exactly as presented by fundamentalist Christians, with the skies opening and trumpet sounding and people being physically pulled into the clouds. It leaves the viewer with a sense of shock. Pay for My Sin is that kind of novel.

The protagonist, Maria, is refreshingly naive, with a bit of Mary Magdalen complex going on. She is not mystical or scholarly woman by any means. She is the matriarch of a family that she perceives to be "corrupt" and in need of salvation. Her faith in the Gospel is straightforward and complete. So when the world starts ending in the way she had imagined it would - she is left with a strange sense of peace and comfort. How far will she go to ensure that her unsaved family has a place in Heaven?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Stones Don't Speak - WWII fiction beyond the Holocaust - Nazi occupied Norway

Welcome to Nazi-occupied Norway where people try to maintain a sense of fragile and nervous normalcy. Yes, people still attend classical music concerts (as long as the program is ethnically neutral and doesn't include pieces by German composers). Regular flour is in short supply, so you have to get creative about making pancakes. Sure, they taste a little chalky, but if you add enough berry jam, they taste just like they did in the good old days. If you are a woman who is "lucky" to have naturally blonde hair, you just might capture the heart of a Nazi officer who will make your life considerably more pleasant.

You don't get too many books covering the occupation of countries like Holland and Norway. Nordic nations were considered en par with Germans more or less in terms of "racial purity". I almost wonder if authors hesitate to write on this subject, because n their eyes the Holocaust dwarfs the suffering of the Dutch and the Norwegian population. They are afraid of being met with "How dare you complain? You don't know real suffering." I've actually met authors who confessed to that. They say, "Who cares about our stories?" Well, those stories need to be told, because they involve real men and women who took part in the resistance movement. So I applaud author Gry Finsnes for writing her Tall King's Country series. "Stones Don't Speak" is her second book in the series, a sequel to "Vanished in Berlin". To set the stage, you have a German musician Friedrich who falls in love with a Norwegian pianist Ellen. Given that their respective countries are at war, the lovers face that uncomfortable dilemma. Can you still be a German patriot if you hate the Nazi regime? "Stones Don't Speak" picks up with Ellen back in Norway, trying to reestablish a relationship with her ambivalent parents and contemplating joining the resistance movement, which entails pretending to get chummy with the Nazi occupiers and tolerating a great deal of unwanted sexual attention with a straight face. But hey, wartime is not the time to get squeamish and prudish. She must put her disgust aside for a greater cause.

Author Gry Finsnes has already won my respect with her understated eloquence and no-nonsense, no-melodrama narrative style. She has that seasoned temperance of a worldly, well-traveled individual with a broad perspective. I adore her Nordic, masculine style without any needless hysteria. Her ability to describe dramatic events in a matter-of-factly, laconic fashion is what sets her works apart.