Sunday, February 27, 2011

Guest Post: Author of When We Were Strangers - Pamela Schoenewaldt

When We Were Strangers: A Novel  When We Were Strangers  is a work of historical fiction which chronicles the emigration of Irma Vitale  from Italy to the United States.  Author Pamela Schoenewaldt expertly captures the struggle of immigrants and the experience of being caught between two worlds.  I was so invested in Irma's story! My review will be up shortly but in the meantime check out reviews here and here.  Pamela graciously agreed to guest post on my blog in conjunction with my Immigrant Stories Challenge.  

An Immigrant in Naples

My historical novel of immigration, When We Were Strangers, is set in the 1880s, when Irma Vitale leaves her mountain village in Southern Italy and comes to America. My “research” began in November, 1990, when I left Northern California to live in Naples, Italy with my fiancĂ©, Maurizio, and felt the searing displacement that might have been Irma’s.

I’d been to Italy as a tourist on the customary circuit. Nothing of those sunny easy days prepared me for life in the center of Naples. I had worked in California as a freelance writer with some success. In Naples I could barely frame a sentence. Shopping, the gay experience of so American-in-Italy cinema, was complex. “You bombed this!” one man said accusingly, pointing to a church damaged by the Allies during World War II.

November was cold and rainy; our apartment unheated. We lived in coats. In the old quarters of Naples, roads are paved with basalt; buildings climbing overhead were dark with age, opening to slits of gray sky. No parks, trees or grass. I knew that in a walled medieval city, parks are an unreasonable luxury, yet I ached for California’s green.

“It’s a small apartment,” Maurizio had warned before I came to Naples. No kidding. We had a basso, two rooms on the ground floor of a vicoletto, an alley 10 feet wide, paved in the eternal basalt, in constant shadow. Our front room had one “window,” an opening to the vicoletto about 18 inches square, lined in black marble a foot deep. That would be our refrigerator. We parked Maurizio’s motorcycle inside for safety. Our hand-washed clothes dried with aching slowness here, for they would be stolen if hung outside. Our bedroom had no window. Frequent power failures left it pitch dark. But of all these inconveniences (soon over for we had moved by Spring), the worst was to feel so foreign, awkward and ignorant. After some social gaffe, like shaking hands on a frigid day with gloves on (uncouth) or using a formal rather than informal “you” or vice versa, I wanted to say, “In my country, I know the rules.”

Of course when I began the novel, I did formal research, studying ships, immigration patterns, Ellis Island and its predecessor, Castle Gardens. I read How the Other Half Lives (1890) by Jacob Riis, the classic (deeply racist) description of life in Manhattan’s foul East Side ghettos. I visited the Tenement Project and read Italian classics on life in the South. I used university and public library resources, government documents and online sources.

But to truly create Irma’s passage, I stripped away my immigrant advantages – education and a profession, money in the bank and a fiancĂ© I adored – to imagine myself a young girl in an utterly strange land in which all that I knew and knew how to do was irrelevant. The experience was humbling; it was soul-changing, and it connected me forever to those who have been made strangers, those who ache for our welcome.

Pamela Schoenewaldt lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. She visited Opi, where her novel When We Were Strangers opens on cross-country skiing trips and was inspired by its solemn beauty, isolation and the reserved pride of its people. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy, and the U.S. Her play “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with My Mother) was produced at Teatro Cilea, Naples. Pamela Schoenewaldt taught writing at the University of Maryland, European Division, and at the University of Tennessee. She lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband, Maurizio Conti—a medical physicist, and their dog, Jesse—a philosopher. Visit her at her blog

As part of my Immigrant Stories Challenge, I will feature a post on the last day of each month which focuses on immigrant literature or the immigrant experience.  Pamela - thank you so much for sharing a little with us about your immigrant experience and how it influenced the creation of Irma!

The Sunday Salon: Lost and Found

The Sunday
Photo Credit: Jeff Mikels
This Sunday started out very fortuitously  - I found a necklace that has been missing for 2 weeks!  I had almost resigned myself to the fact that it was gone forever but I checked one last location this morning and there it was!  The necklace, besides being something I wear a few days a week, was a special gift and I was so disappointed that I had lost it.  I have a checkered past with valuable jewelry - over the years I have lost or broken many pieces.  But I have had a good run in the past few years and thought I had left my careless days behind - this experience has been a good reminder for me that I need to take better care. 

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt: A NovelAt long last,  got some posts up this week - life had gotten the best of me over the past two weeks!  First, I reviewed the utterly charming Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt - if you are looking for an uplifting book with strong women characters, this is it!

The Odious Ogre

Next, I reviewed The Odious Ogre, a children's book written by the duo responsible for The Phantom Tollbooth.  My nephew and I read this book and I was surprised by how much the story stayed with him - over the few days following our reading of it, he kept asking me about the story and sitting and paging through the book.  The illustrations are excellent and there is a lot to look at so it lends itself well to re-reads.  The vocab is also pretty advanced and he seemed to like learning all the new words.

Devotion: A Memoir

Finally, I reviewed a book that just blew me away - Devotion by Dani Shapiro.  The memoir chronicles the author's search for grounding in faith and meaning.  It has been called a "literary excavation to the core of a life" which I think sums the book up well.  I was so impacted by the book that I want to giveaway a copy to two readers of my blog - stop by this post and comment for a chance to win.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see author Sarah Pekkanen  at a reading held at Soho House.  In addition to reading from her new book, Skipping a Beat , she discussed with her editor her experiences as a new author and shared some of her writing habits.  You can read about some of this on her website.  By all accounts, her latest book is great (you can read reviews here and here).  My copy is seriously tempting me to break the TBR DARE but so far, I have held out!

Author Pamela Schoenewaldt will be guest blogging here tomorrow!  Her novel When We Were Strangers  tells the story of Irma, a young girl that emigrates from a small village in Italy to the United States.  As part of my Immigrant Stories Challenge , Pamela will be writing here about immigration and her research for the book.  Please stop by!

Hope you all have a great Sunday!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

We Have Winners!

Last week I participated in the Literary Blog Hop Giveaway hosted by Leeswammes Blog and offered two books which I really enjoyed - The Corrections: A Novel and Life of Pi.  Without further ado, the winners are:

Life of Pi


The Corrections: A Novel

Joanna from Ephemeral Digest

I have sent emails to both winners and books are on their way from The Book Depository.  Congratulations!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Review and Giveaway: Devotion by Dani Shapiro

Devotion: A MemoirDevotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro is a memoir by a wife and mother who begins to wonder (well, really knows) that there must be more to life than an endless routine of errands and responsibilities and endeavors to try to find more meaning in life.  Having grown up in a religious Jewish family, Shapiro struggles to reconcile the traditions of her father's Judaism with what she really believes and what will bring her purpose and comfort in her busy life.  Dedicated to the goal of gaining this understanding, Dani explores her own history with religion, the practice of yoga, buddhism - searching for that kernel that will resonate and make sense of it all.  She tells the story of this journey beautifully but also with some well-placed humor and self-deprecation which makes the book so readable and satisfying at the same time.

A book about religion and finding spiritual meaning?  This really could have gone either way and although I had been interested in the book since it first came out in hardcover, I opened it with a little trepidation prepared to perhaps be turned off by a spiritual journey I couldn't understand or too much abstract exploration of meaning.  When I read the following quote within the first 20 pages of the book and found myself utterly able to relate, I knew I had nothing to worry about:
I was always compiling lists in my mind: what had gone wrong, what could go wrong.  I hadn't figured out how to live with my heightened awareness of exactly how fragile it all is. And so the lists grew and grew.  I was trying to control the universe - and it's hard work to try and control the universe.  I thought that by naming every potential disaster, I could prevent it. 
 Ah - someone put to words what I struggled with myself for as long as I can remember.  From that point on, I was hooked and literally devoured this book.  I found myself getting through it so quickly because I just wanted to read more and more but also needing to remind myself to slow down and really let it settle in.  My copy of the book is completely dog-eared - I seemed to find passages every few pages that I wanted to hold on to because they articulated my own experience in a way I never could.

A memoir's success really lies in the author's ability to connect to readers with their own story.  Shapiro does that with grace and ease.  On the surface, I have little in common with the author.  She is a mother and wife living in the country; she was raised in a Orthodox Judaism; she lost her father in a tragic accident and had a painfully difficult relationship with her mother.  I am single, childless, living in a city; I was raised in the Catholic Church; both of my parents are alive and well and, although I do battle with them from time to time,  our relationship is pretty good.  Despite all these differences, I understood her journey and saw parallels in my own life.  Shapiro's struggle to find faith and meaning is truly universal and she writes about it in such an accessible way that a reader can easily connect with the story. 

Ok, by this point in the review, it is clear I LOVED this book and I urge you to get it and read it.  For other perspectives on the book, you can check this link for the list of blogs on the tour - there are many excellent reviews there (some may also be more balanced than mine!)  I tried to see the author at a speaking engagement in NYC but was not able to make it but for those of you in a book club,  Dani is very willing to speak with book clubs (via Skype) - I think this book would spark a lot of interesting discussion. 

I want to share this book - I have already bought copies for friends and started handing them out!  My copy will remain on the shelf with all it's dog-eared pages so I can go back to it but I have also bought 2 copies to give away to readers of my blog.  Just leave a comment below with a way to contact you and I will select winners on Wed, March 2nd.  The contest is open internationally (I will ship the book via the Book Depository)

Thank you to Trish at TLC Book Tours  for introducing me to this book and providing a copy for review!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Children's Book Review: The Odious Ogre

The Odious OgreThe Odious Ogre by Norman Juster and Jules Feiffer (recommended for Pre School - Grade 2)

The book, by the duo who wrote and illustrated the classic The Phantom Tollbooth, has a fairy tale quality about it.  It tells the story of an ogre (of course) who terrorizes the townspeople as he storms through and swoops up people and eats them as snacks.  His reputation is legendary:
He was, it was widely believed, extraordinarily large, exceedingly ugly, unusually angry, constantly hungry and absolutely merciless.
At least, that is what everyone thought, or supposed, or had heard from someone else, or read somewhere or had on good authority from the grocer's wife nephew.
When he encounters a young woman who doesn't know to be afraid of him but instead disarms him with her concern for him and her ability to see past his large, ugly exterior, the ogre is completely undone.  It is a wonderful message about the power of kindness and how seeing beyond a gruff exterior and what others believe about someone is courageous.

My 6 year old nephew and I read this book together one evening (it is a little long for that just before bed read so allow some more time) and he was captivated -  he kept asking me questions about what had happened in the story and woke up the next morning wanting to re-read the story.  I saw him go back to it a number of times over the next few days.  I am not surprised - the story is very rich - there is a lot going on in it and also in the illustrations so it lends itself well to re-reads.  The vocabulary is also very advanced so he was introduced to many new words. Another classic from Juster and Feiffer!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Review: Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt: A NovelSaving CeeCee Honeycutt: A Novel by Beth Hoffman is the charming story of a young girl, Cee Cee Honeycutt,  and the second chance she is given at a real childhood by her Aunt Tootie and the cast of characters from their Savannah neighborhood.  Pre-teen Cee Cee lived with her mother in Ohio and tried to manage despite her mother's mental illness and her preoccupation with her days as a Southern beauty queen.  Cee Cee's mortification at much of her Mom's behavior is made all the more poignant by her very evident love for her mother.  When her Mom dies unexpectedly and her father, absent even before her mother's death, makes it clear he cannot care for his young daughter, Aunt Tootie arrives from Savannah and takes Cee Cee home with her.

Cee Cee enters an entirely new world when she arrives in Savannah - she meets Tootie's eccentric neighbors and friends and her Aunt's housekeeper, Oletta.  Each of these women take special care of Cee Cee and provide her with excellent models of strong (if a little crazy at times) women.  With time, Cee Cee is able to shed the shroud under which she has lived while dealing with her mother's mental illness, her father's indifference to her and ultimately the loss of her mother.  It is inspiring to see her blossom under the care of these southern women.

Author Beth Hoffman has created a lovely cast of characters in this novel which reminded me a bit of "Steel Magnolias".   It is a wonderful read and one I did not want to see end - I wanted to enjoy more of the adventures of these women and see Cee Cee continue to flourish under their care.  I can't wait to see what the author has in store for us in new novels!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Literary Blog Hop Giveaway

Leeswammes Blog is hosting the Literary Blog Hop Giveaway from Feb 19th - Feb 24th.  29 blogs (listed below) are participating and each blogger is hosting a giveaway of a literary selection (or more!).

The books I am offering are ones I really enjoyed within the past year:

The Corrections: A Novel The Corrections: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen (read my review here)


Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel (read my review here)

Just let me know (when you fill out the form) which one you would like.  If you have already read or own both books, there is an option for you to fill in the book you would like (up to $15) from The Book Depository The giveaway is Open Worldwide.  Winners will be chosen on Feb 25th.

I would love to hear your literary suggestions - leave me one in the comments!

Here are the others on the Blog Hop:

  1. Leeswammes (Int)
  2. Teadevotee (Int)
  3. The Book Whisperer (Int)
  4. Uniflame Creates (Int)
  5. Bookworm with a View (Int)From Saturday evening onwards
  6. Stiletto Storytime (USA, CA)
  7. I Am A Reader, Not A Writer (Int)
  8. The Bookkeeper (Int)
  9. Chinoiseries (Int)
  10. Ephemeral Digest (Int)
  11. bibliosue (Int)
  12. ThirtyCreativeStudio (Int)
  13. Nishitas Rants and Raves (Int)
  14. Roof Beam Reader (Int)
  15. Actin Up with books (USA)
  16. Sarah Reads Too Much (USA, CA)
  17. Book Journey (US)
  18. The Blue Bookcase (Int)
  19. Read, Write and Live (Int)
  20. Silver’s Reviews (USA)
  21. Graasland (Int) – From Saturday evening onwards
  22. Teach with Picture Books (USA)
  23. Books in the City (Int)
  24. thebookbee (Int)
  25. The Scarlet Letter (USA)
  26. Seaside Book Nook (USA)
  27. Chocolate and Croissants (Int)
  28. write meg! (USA)
  29. Indie Reader Houston (Int)

Monday, February 7, 2011

2011 Challenge Sign-Ups/Wrap-Up

Despite my challenges with challenges last year, I am at it again!  I have selected my challenges for 2011 (although the door doesn't seem to close for me!) and here are my sign-up posts:

TBR DARE is hosted by Ready When You Are, CB and challenges participants to only read from their own shelves for the period you commit to in your sign-up post.  This is a much needed challenge for me - my shelves are overflowing with books I really want to read but I get distracted with new books so I am excited to dig into these books on my shelf.  I will make exceptions for book club books but other than that the books I read will be those on my shelf (and iPad) as of now.  I am going to try for April.  

What's In a Name 4 hosted by Beth Fish Reads challenges readers to read books to satisfy the following categories:
  1. book with a number in the title
  2. A book with jewelry or a gem in the title
  3. A book with a size in the title
  4. A book with travel or movement in the title
  5. A book with evil in the title
  6. A book with a life stage in the title
I did What's In A Name 3 in 2010  and had fun slotting books into the categories so I am looking forward to this one!

Speaking of categories, I am signed up for The TwentyEleven Challenge hosted by Darren at Bart's Bookshelf.  This challenge has 11 categories and you read 2 books in all but 2 categories of your choice in which you read only 1.  That makes for a total of 20 books.  I attempted this one last year and missed by a few weeks but I liked how it made me stretch in terms of what I read so I am in again!

I consider myself a bit of a anglophile so of course I am signed up for the British Books Challenge (BBC).  I did this one last year too and since books by British authors always feature in my reading, I am signed up for 2011.  This year there are essentially two challenges - one for those living in the UK and one for those of us that are overseas (and perhaps wished we were across the pond?).  There are two levels  - Winston Churchill (6 books) or Royal Family (12 books).  Since I have a habit of over committing myself, I have holding at 6 and see if I end of exceeding that.  I have already read 2 - One Day  by David Nicholls and I Remember You by Harriet Evans.  What else is on the shelf for this challenge? An Offer You Can't Refuse by Jill Mansell and Mini Shopaholic: A Novel by Sophie Kinsella.  Mmmm, a lot of Brit Chick Lit - anyone have some other recommendations from UK authors?

Another country near and dear to my heart is Ireland - I love a good book set in the Emerald Isle or written by an Irish author.  So I will definitely be doing the Ireland Reading Challenge again.  Hosted by Books and Movies, the challenge requires participants to read a book by an Irish author or set in Ireland (fiction and non-fiction both qualify).  I am in at the Kiss the Blarney Stone level (6 books).

I started 2010 with a trip to India so  S. Krishna's South Asian Authors Challenge seemed like a perfect fit.  I didn't make my target of 8 books by South Asian Authors last year (I read 3 -yikes) so I am joining again but at a reduced level - South Asian Explorer (5 books).  I have many books by South Asian authors on my shelves but Swapna has a review database that is an excellent resource if you are looking for suggestions

Memorable Memoirs is being hosted again this year by The Betty And Boo Chronicles; this is another repeat for me.  I like a good memoir (don't get me started on that NYT article!) and I always seem to read several a year.  You can set you own target for this one - I am going for 5 which is one more than I read last year. 

Last year I did Rose City Reader's Battle of the Prizes - British Version so this year I am signing up for the American version.  The challenge asks that you read one National Book Award winner, one Pulitzer Prize winner and one book that has won both. I like this challenge because the books to meet it are high quality, often classic, novels that have been on my TBR for far too long. 

My last two challenges revolve around the format of the book - The E-Books Challenge  (hosted by Ladybug Reads and the 2011 Audiobook Challenge (hosted by Teresa's Reading Corner).  I got an iPad at the end of 2010 and finally got into e-books while I was on vacation (suitcases were so much lighter!)  - I still have a lot of paper books but I know e-books will feature in my selections this year.  I really got into audiobooks last year  - I like them for the walk to work and whenever I rent a car to go somewhere.  Both challenges have a "fascinated" level (6 books) and I am going for that level on both challenges.

And last but not least  - I am, of course, signing up for the challenge I am hosting this year - The Immigrant Stories Challenge. I hope you will consider joining too!

Are you challenging yourself this year?