Critical Mass

Summer Reading: Jane Ciabattari


After two years tethered to the Internet, due to a couple of big writing projects, I’m heading to upstate New York later this month to spend a week as fiction writer in residence at the Chautauqua’s Writers Center. Chautauqua is the home of the nation’s first writers’ group. Still styled as a 19th-century village, it prohibits automobiles and brings visitors back to an earlier, slower way of experiencing summer.

So I am going untethered. No computer, no Google, no blogging.  I intend to listen to lectures and concerts and readings, sit on the porch and watch fireflies. And I plan to spend delicious evenings (and some mornings and late afternoons) curled up with these books. If there is a common thread, it is that these books reflect my yearning for storytelling after several seasons of drowning in data. 

“What Makes a Child Lucky,” Gioia Timpanelli. (Norton)

Gioia Timpanelli’s “Sometimes the Soul,” novellas set in Sicily, one a retelling of the “Beauty and the Beast” legend, drew advance praise from an eclectic grouping—NBCC fiction winner Penelope Fitzgerald, memoirist Frank McCourt, and poet Robert Bly—and set the New York Times to raving: “Rare is the story that is truly original, but Gioia Timpanelli’s novellas are as familiar as the ancient tales on which they are based.”

Her new novel, “What Makes a Child Lucky,” which at first glance has the muscular prose I associate with Leonardo Sciascia, is a coming of age tale set in a harsh and perilous Sicilian landscape. A young man witnesses a murder, is kidnapped by the murderers, and learns the age old rules for those inside and outside of society from a wise woman who may guide him to safety through the tales she tells.

“Behind Closed Doors: Her Father’s House and Other Stories of Sicily,” Maria Messina, translated and with an introduction by Elise Magistro. Feminist Press.

As a companion to Timpanelli, I’m bringing this collection of stories by Messina, who was a contemporary of Luigi Pirandello, Giovanni Verga, and Giusseppe di Lampedusa. NBCC member Fred Gardaphe, who first brought this book to my attention, notes in the preface, “Sicily has been the setting for many foundational myths of physical violence, including those of Homer’s ‘Illiad’ and ‘Odyssey.’ Between these master narratives and contemporary mythology about the Mafia’s violence lies the reality of Sicilian culture, much of which is still invisible.”

“City of Refuge.” Tom Piazza. HarperCollins.

Tom Piazza’s Katrina novel, in the works since the storm devastated New Orleans as the nation watched in horror, is also on my list. Piazza, who knocked out “Why New Orleans Matters” at a furious pace right after the storm, has talked about the progress of his novel in the Critical Mass “Thinking About New Orleans” series here. Can’t wait to see the results.

Marilynne Robinson, HOME.(Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

A new novel from Robinson, a companion to “Gilead,” which who won the NBCC Award and the Pulitzer in fiction, seems a perfect nineteenth-century based story for my Chautauqua meander. It’s set in the same small Iowa town and has some of the same characters. I’ll bring “Gilead,” too, as a refresher.

Nick Taylor. AMERICAN MADE. (Random House.)

I also want to use this expansive time to dig further into Nick Taylor’s thorough, vivid and and insightful history of the WPA (Works Progress Administration), a meticulously researched volume that describes how Franklin Delano Roosevelt put together a government intervention that put millions of jobless to work during the Depression building bridges,dams, and tunnels, rescuing survivors of floods and other disasters, documenting America in photography, prose, and theater, and leaving virtually every state in union with improved infrastructure (La Guardia airport, San Antonio’s River Walk, San Francisco’s Beach Chalet)—and a local history-rich guidebook written by the WPA writers. I still grab these guidebooks when I find them in used bookstores.