This time, in researching independent bookstores in Pennsylvania, I decide to look outside of the big cities because the bookstores in Philadelphia remind me of bookstores in Seattle. There’s the college bookstore, a couple of big bookstores, the LGBT bookstore, an artsy bookstore and some used bookstores. I’m sure they’re all great but I think I need to cast a wider net. Pennsylvania is vast. Maybe I need a rural or small town perspective. I log onto the internet and find Whistlestop Bookshop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I’m not sure why it appeals to me. The website is not very fancy. But I love their philosophy, The objective of our business is to put the right books in the hands of the right people. This is clearly the place for me! I’m also drawn to the bios of the booksellers. There are so many of them and they all sound like people I’d like to meet. Of course, Carlisle is a college town. I imagine it filled with bookish students and professors. Whistlestop originally opened in 1985 in Gettysburg, with a second shop in Carlisle a few years later. After nineteen years, the Gettysburg shop closed and moved to Carlisle. Find it here: http://www.whistlestoppers.com/
I’m not sorry that I took the time to read Christopher Castellani’s most recent novel before moving on to Pennsylvania. In fact, I think I like this novel even more than I liked its predecessor. In All This Talk of Love, Antonio and Maddalena are in their seventies and their two surviving children are adults. We learn early on that their eldest son, Tony, died as a teenager. Their youngest son, Frankie, is a graduate student, another lost soul searching for an academic life and interpersonal relationships that make sense. Their daughter Prima, their first-born and a baby at the end of The Saint of Lost Things is the mother of three teenage sons, the last of which is about to go off to college. For Prima, the empty nest is a frightening place. She has always been close to her sons, a little too close probably. Coupled with that, she sees her parents beginning to fail physically and mentally. It’s her idea to take the entire family back to St. Cecelia, their ancestral village, for the trip of a lifetime.
But things happen throughout the novel which postpone the trip. At first, Maddalena refuses to go, she has only her memories of St. Cecelia and doesn’t want to face how the place and the people have changed. Frankie sides with his mother. Then, there is an accident. When the trip finally happens, it’s different from everyone’s original expectation, and meaningful to each of them individually for very different reasons. [Read more…] about All This Talk of Love – Leaving Delaware
Christopher Castellani wins! Okay, this blog isn’t meant to be a beauty contest for writers. That said, Castellani is my pick for Mr. Delaware. Castellani has written a trilogy about an Italian Immigrant family, the Grassos, which begins and ends in St. Cecelia, a small village in Italy where the novel’s main characters, Maddalena and Antonio, meet and marry.
Because I believe that his latest book takes place in Italy and I’m looking to discover what life is like in Delaware, I begin reading the trilogy in the middle with The Saint of Lost Things. In this novel, set in the fifties in Wilmington, the Grassos are just starting out, searching for their American Dream. Antonio works on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Company while Maddalena rides the bus to a factory in Philadelphia where she bends over a sewing machine all day. Any extra money they make gets sewn into a special pocket Maddalena has fashioned into the cornice of the drapes. The Grassos live with Antonio’s family in the Italian neighborhood in Wilmington, a tight-knit community, ten square blocks with the Catholic church, St. Anthony’s, at the center. The church, the houses of other families and Italian restaurants are all places where they gather on Sundays and for every important family event. For Christmas Eve festivities, the women begin preparing food a week in advance, they make twelve pounds of pasta and seven different kinds of fish, delicate sauces and sweets galore. These gatherings are filled with the kind of big emotions that come with big families – passion, jealousy and love, so much love. [Read more…] about Delaware, Part Two – Christopher Castellani
When the first book of this project, The House on Teacher’s Lane by Rachel Simon, shows up in my mailbox, I can’t wait to start reading. But first, I do what I always do — check out the cover, a nice photo of an old row house on a leafy street. Then I read the blurb — sounds good, promises to be “life affirming.” Inside the cover I find lots of quotes about the author’s previous book. It seems like that book, Riding the Bus with my Sister, about Simon’s relationship with her developmentally disabled sister was a bestseller and adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. A hard act to follow.
The House on Teacher’s Lane is a story about love and family relationships set within the framework of rehabbing a hundred year old row house in the small city of Wilmington, Delaware. I read chapter one and think, Yes! This is just what I was hoping for. I discover that the author’s neighborhood, “sandwiched between downtown office towers at the hill’s peak and a genteel park at the hill’s bottom” is a real community where neighborly gatherings are common and people care about each other. It’s a place where you can walk to do errands or down to the park across a nineteenth century stucco bridge and along a cobblestone road. Walking along the Brandywine Parkway toward the river, you might even spot a great blue heron. Simon and her husband see one all the time. They’ve named him Edward. There’s a zoo and a major hospital and it’s close to the interstate, but quiet. It seems lovely.
The house itself has a terra cotta porch, a heavy oak front door, hardwood floors, plaster walls and working transom windows. Just before the project begins, Simon and her husband share a moment holding hands and looking out at the street from the third floor music room. She says, It seemed as if we were in a glass ship sailing down a river of row houses and trees, embarking on a voyage that transcended our failed past. I can picture the majestic sycamores which line the street and drape one set of windows while the sunlight streams in. I think about their failed past. Simon and her husband, Hal, have only been married a few years after having an on again, off again relationship for nineteen years. Nineteen! It seems she couldn’t commit and didn’t recognize all of Hal’s great qualities until she spent time away from him. But now they’re back together and living their happily ever after.
Near the end of chapter one, Simon muses: “Is it possible that I’m beginning to see less of what isn’t and more of what is?” And herein lies the rub. Simon seems a bit of a whiner. She does seem to always comment on what isn’t — what’s lacking in relationships with her husband and her family, what’s lacking in the old house. The concept here is that against the backdrop of the construction project, Simon works on her relationships in the same way her husband works on their remodel. But I don’t think these two ideas echo each other in a convincing way in this memoir. And, for my purposes, I’m looking for a book that gives me a real sense of Delaware as a place. Early on, Simon notes that while Hal thinks in terms of things you can see or hear . . . my conversation seldom strayed from emotions and memory and relationships and the meaning of life.” Alas, this is also true. Only in chapter one do I get a sense of what makes Wilmington unique. The rest of the book could be happening in Anywhere, U.S.A. There is some lovely writing here, and Simon has some useful things to say about relationships and what it takes to keep them viable, but the memoir lacks what I am looking for and this worries me.
I realize that in my first attempt to explain exactly what I’m after in my quest to read a book about each state, I have not made myself clear. After all, I’m just beginning this journey, trying to figure it out while I dive right in, or drive right through. But wait. The bookseller at Ninth Street Book Shop mentioned another Delaware writer first, Christopher Castellani. I should look him up! Even though his latest novel takes place in Italy, the earlier ones in this family trilogy are set in Wilmington. But they might be out of print. I log on to the Seattle Public Library catalog. Turns out that the second in the trilogy, The Saint of Lost Things, the story of an Italian couple who move to Wilmington to start a new life in the 1950’s, is available so I order it up with my fingers crossed.
I’m a reader. I read all kinds of books, mostly fiction. Sometimes a friend will suggest a book for me to read, or I’ll check out the New York Times Book Review on Sundays, or the Staff Picks shelf at my favorite independent bookstores. It’s all pretty random.
But recently I’ve become interested in the idea of place in literature. The way that, in some novels, setting is character. Think Dickens’s London — the characters who come alive in that city’s debtor’s prisons, courts of law, counting houses and blacking factories. Those characters are unique reflections of Victorian London, where coal smoke continuously chugs into the damp air and lingers, trapped by fog, where there are no child labor laws and where poverty prevails. They could not exist anywhere else. And what about modern fiction? Are there good examples of novels today that evoke their setting in a way that makes them come alive, makes you feel like you’ve been dropped into a different world, a distinctive place with a flavor all its own? I believe so. I’ve read some. And I’m on a quest now find one or two from each of the United States. Hence this literary road trip. I’ll start with Delaware, the first state, and keep going until I get to Hawaii. I’ll choose books to read by looking up independent bookstores in the state, calling them up, and asking for a recommendation.
I’m excited but also a little concerned that, with the increasing homogeneity of the United States, those characteristics which distinguish one place from another have blurred over time. Drop me off in a shopping mall anywhere from California to Pennsylvania and it’s likely I’ll have trouble figuring out where I am. What distinguishes one city or state from another today when the same big box stores, retail chains and coffee shops are everywhere? When we’re all connected by television and the internet. Where we can wake up in one time zone and go to sleep in another just by taking a short plane ride. Where children grow up in one state, go to college in another and find their first job in yet another state? I’m hoping to find out and write about it here. [Read more…] about Literary Road Trip