Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Immigrant Lives and Stories: The Ever-Present Past by Aine Greaney

Dance Lessons: A NovelAine Greaney is the author of Dance Lessons: A Novel which tells the story of an American woman who travels to Ireland following her husband's death to learn about her Irish immigrant husband - she learns much more than she ever expected. (Stop by tomorrow for my review) Aine was raised in County Mayo, Ireland and emigrated to the US in 1986.  She currently resides on Boston's North Shore.  Aine has graciously agreed to guest post on my blog about her immigrant experience in conjunction with my Immigrant Stories Challenge.

The Ever-Present Past

Most mornings, I wake up to a strange bedroom. I lie there peering into that gauzy daylight, sleepy and baffled. Where? Where am I? And then, bit by bit, things become familiar. That’s my bedroom chair against the wall. I bought it at a garage sale in upstate New York. And there’s my framed wall mirror. I brought it home from an estate sale in Gloucester, Massachusetts. And that’s my purple bath robe hanging on the back of the door. Two years ago, I unwrapped it from a package beneath our Christmas tree. So this is my bedroom. This is my life. In America.

After 24 years of living here, you would think that I would wake up to instant recognition, an instant sense of where I am. But most mornings, I wake from a dream of Ireland.

It’s not always a happy dream.

On one winter day in 1986, an Aer Lingus plane deposited me and my backpack into the intercoms and voices and smells of JFK Airport, New York. The airport was too hot. The weather outside was frightful. I was terrified. That was 24 years ago. This year, 2011, I have spent as much as my life here as I had back there. So I should be as American as I am Irish.

And I am. I order a tom-ay-to on my salad. I get pissed because I’m angry, not drunk. I have learned to be on time (mostly).

And yet, I wake up a stranger in my own house. I wake up still back there.

Photo Credit: Homeaway
In many of my night dreams, I’m in a small, thatch-roof house at the end of an old, pebbled road in County Mayo. It’s the house that was handed down in my grandmother’s family. It’s listed in the online 1901 Irish census, though the house and the farm predate that. After I was born in a Galway hospital, they brought me home there. I lived there until I was 10 years old.

At three o’clock in the morning, American eastern standard time, I am back there again, standing in that smoky little kitchen, or I’m lying in my childhood sick bed, watching the apple trees make shadows against bedroom window.

Sometimes I’m in a two-level stone house on a village street—the house we moved to when I was ten. I’m in my teenage bedroom, the bed has a pink quilt; there's blue, 1970s-style carpet on the floor. Downstairs, I hear my mother’s and my grandmother’s voices.

Or I’m standing in another bedroom, this one in the Irish midlands. It’s a furnished studio flat at the top of a decrepit house that sits on a main street in a small one-street town. From college in Dublin, I moved there for my first job. In the dream, I can smell my landing neighbor’s burnt toast through the thin apartment walls.

Most days, I commute to work in an office north of Boston. I e-mail colleagues and I have lunch and sit in meetings. On the commute home, I listen to the radio or I make dinner arrangements with my American husband or friends. In my daylight hours, the bedrooms of my past are just a quick blip of color, a drive-by sighting of memory. Even when they assume full color, they exist in a separate wing of the gallery. But at night, here they are again, in full Technicolor.

At night, I sing those other songs. I speak that other tongue, and when I wake up, there is no instant passage from one life to the other.

For immigrants, I believe that this is how it is. From New York to Hong Kong to London, we live our lives within the shadow of the life left behind. As we walk down a city street, that shadow jimmies and bounces and dances alongside us.

This is why I read immigrant writers. Not exclusively. But when I read that first scene, there is an automatic reader-writer connection. This words mirror my own dual-realities, my own splintered existence. Quite simply, the literature of displacement makes me feel less displaced.

As an author, this is why I write so much about history and why my characters’ past is ever-present on the page. Because for immigrants, there’s really no back-story and main story.

The back-story is the story. Every morning.

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.  Thank you Aine for sharing with us your immigrant experience - I think living "our lives in the shadow of the life left behind" beautifully captures the unique pain of being caught between two worlds which is so often experienced by immigrants.  And thank you for sharing your top 5 Immigrant Novels:

Aine Greaney's 5 Favorite Immigrant Books (in no particular order)
 “The Middleman and Other Stories” (Bharati Mukherjee)
 “A Distant Shore” (Caryl Phillips)  
 “The Namesake” (Jhumpa Lahiri)
 “The Road Home” (Rose Tremain)  
“Walking into the Night” (Olaf Olafsson)

Waiting on Wednesday: March 30th

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

My pick this week actually released yesterday but I am very excited that it is out:

The Free World: A NovelThe Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis

 From Goodreads:
Summer, 1978. Brezhnev sits like a stone in the Kremlin, Israel and Egypt are inching towards peace, and in the bustling, polyglot streets of Rome, strange new creatures have appeared: Soviet Jews who have escaped to freedom through a crack in the Iron Curtain. Among the thousands who have landed in Italy to secure visas for new lives in the West are the members of the Krasnansky family — three generations of Russian Jews.

There is Samuil, an old Communist and Red Army veteran, who reluctantly leaves the country to which he has dedicated himself body and soul; Karl, his elder son, a man eager to embrace the opportunities emigration affords; Alec, his younger son, a carefree playboy for whom life has always been a game; and Polina, Alec's new wife, who has risked the most by breaking with her old family to join this new one. Together, they will spend six months in Rome — their way station and purgatory. They will immerse themselves in the carnival of emigration, in an Italy rife with love affairs and ruthless hustles, with dislocation and nostalgia, with the promise and peril of a better life. Through the unforgettable Krasnansky family, David Bezmozgis has created an intimate portrait of a tumultuous era.

Written in precise, musical prose, The Free World is a stunning debut novel, a heartfelt multigenerational saga of great historical scope and even greater human debth. Enlarging on the themes of aspiration and exile that infused his critically acclaimed first collection, Natasha and Other Stories, The Free World establishes Bezmozgis as one of our most mature and accomplished storytellers.

This book is a perfect selection for the Immigrant Stories Challenge.

What are you waiting on?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday Salon: March 27, 2011

The Sunday

It's been some time since I have done a Sunday Salon - in fact, Spring has arrived since I last posted a SS. Or has it? Although the sun is out here (and that is lovely) it is COLD! So much for "out like a lamb" - it seems like March is leaving like a lion!

Bookish Events 
There are a few events coming up that I am excited about:

Dewey's Read-a-Thon: This event takes place twice a year and is a time to dedicate yourself to reading for 24 hours - what is not to like? The best part, in my opinion, is that the read-a-thon allows reading to become a bit of a social activity  - there are mini-challenges and cheerleaders so it really builds that sense of community that I like to much about book blogging. During the last Read-a-thon, I read for charity and donated $ to the Colon Cancer Alliance for pages read and comments left during RAT.  It really gave a purpose to my day and I will be doing it again.  Will you be joining in the Read-a-Thon on April 9th?

BEA and Book Blogger Con:Book Expo America takes place in NYC May 24-26 and the Book Blogger Con follows it (in the same location) on May 27th.  I signed up for both this week - woo hoo!  I tried to attend both last year - I figured since the events took place in NY, how hard could it be to get cross-town?  Well, work turned into a nightmare in the weeks before the event and I ended up only making it over for BBC.  BBC was excellent - an opportunity to meet fellow book bloggers and listen to experts in the field talk about various aspects of book blogging.  Unfortunately, I was dashing in and out of the sessions trying to cover telecons and answer urgent emails.  I have blocked the days at work and barring any crises intend to fully participate in both BEA and BBC.  I can't wait to welcome you all to my city - are you planning to attend BEA/BBC?

Have you heard about the IndieLit Awards? The Independent Literary Awards were started by Wallace of Unputdownables in 2010.  Literary bloggers nominate books in a number of categories (Biography/Memoir, GLBTQ, Literary Fiction, Mystery, Non-Fiction, Poetry, Speculative Fiction) and they are judged by a group of panelists per genre with winners selected in early 2012.  Nominations are accepted from literary bloggers from September 2011 through December 2011 so keep an eye out for those 2011 books you want to nominate.  I will be on the team voting on Biography/Memoir led by Florinda from 3 R's Blog and my fellow panelists include Alyce from At Home With Books, Candace from Beth Fish Reads and Nadia from a Bookish Way of Life.  You can check out the voting members for other genres and keep up with information about the awards at IndieLit Awards or follow on twitter at @indielitawards

Reviews and such
Things have been light in the review department of late - I have actually been doing a lot of reading but have had some writer's block.  Things are starting to get unstuck so expect to see more here soon!  This week I posted my review of Faking It by Elisa Lorello (w/ a fun giveaway) and on Thursday (3/31) author Aine Greaney will post on my blog regarding immigration; I will post a review of her second novel Dance Lessons: A Novel.  I am excited about this book - it takes place in Boston and Country Mayo, Ireland.  My Mom is from Country Mayo (as is the author) and its great to see the West of Ireland featured in the novel.

Hope you have a great week!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Giveaway: Faking It and Bouquet of Flowers

Faking ItI recently reviewed the novel Faking It by Elisa Lorello (review here) - it is a fun read about a woman who engages the services of an escort to teach her some much needed dating skills.  As the novel progresses and she sheds her inhibitions, she evolves in more ways than just in the romance department.

Thanks to Katie at Little Bird Publicity and California Blooms I have a special giveaway to offer.  The winner of this giveaway will win a copy of Faking It and a dozen roses sent anywhere in the US.  The winner can choose to have both the book and the roses sent to her (and why not?) or can choose to send the roses to someone special.  To enter, comment on my review of Faking It and fill out the form below and good luck!  Contest runs until March 31st at Midnight EST and is open to US residents only. 

Review: Faking It by Elisa Lorello

Faking ItFaking It by Elisa Lorello: In Faking It we meet Andi Cutrone, a 30-something writing professor whose personal life is in flux after she breaks off her engagement. Deciding to yield New England to her ex, Andi moves home to Long Island and new teaching position at Brooklyn University, eager to get a fresh start on her career and herself. Things seem to be going according to plan, Andi’s classes are invigorating and she’s enjoying the company of her best friend and colleague, Maggie. Then, just when Andi seems to be finding her footing, she meets Devin, a male escort whose client list seems to include at least half of the accomplished women she knows. Devin, totally handsome and charming (and decidedly out of her league), has something else underneath his sexy exterior that piques Andi’s interest. So she proposes a “teaching” arrangement: each of them will educate the other in what they know best. Devin will teach Andi to be a better lover, and she’ll teach him to be a writer. What starts out as a clear-cut contract slowly develops into a deeper, unexpected relationship. In the midst of lessons in rhetorical theory and foreplay, Andi and Devin delve into profound questions about everything from art to love to politics, stripping away the emotional walls each has built up, and ultimately opening themselves up to each other and the rest of the world.

My Thoughts:
When I first heard about this book, I wondered if I could enjoy a story with what I considered a superficial premise.  It is often difficult for me to relate to a main character who does something (like engage the services of an escort) I could never imagine doing.  But Andi won me over - her insecurities and desire to overcome them was something I could certainly relate to.  Once I looked beyond Andi's decision  to contract Devin, I realized there Andi and I were not so different - and I was hooked!

This story is less about the "love lessons" offered by Devin and much more about the evolution of Andi from an insecure girl to a more confident woman ready to be successful not only in her university career but also in romance. In teaching Andi how to shed her body consciousness, Devin grants Andi the ability to truly grow up and grab onto life with both hands.

The pace of the  novel picked up noticeably in the last third and there were a few plot twists I did not expect.  The book left me wanting more from these characters so I am happy to see that a sequel coming out (Ordinary World out June 14th).  If you are looking for a fun read  - Andi is learning about sex from an escort, after all - with a main character who evolves over the course of the novel, Faking It is for you!

I am offering a special giveaway with this book, check here for details!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Irish on St. Patrick's Day

This is a an excerpt from a post I made last year around St. Patrick's Day - I thought I would re-post it (with a few updates this) year

St. Patrick's Day - a holiday about which I have mixed feelings. My parents both immigrated to the US in their early 20's - my Dad from Scotland and my Mom from Ireland. My brother and I grew up with a strong sense of our heritage as my parents tried to find that balance between assimilating to their new country, the country of our births and preserving customs and traditions from their homelands.

Mom, Brother and I - Ireland circa 1979

My Mom left behind her entire family in County Mayo and she made a concerted effort to bring us back to visit them every year so that the connection wouldn't be broken - I have many fond memories of summers spent in Ireland enjoying the new found freedom afforded by the open fields that surrounded my grandparents' home. I know it was difficult to save every year to go "home" and I will always be grateful to my parents for making that sacrifice -the opportunity to know my family in Ireland and to travel the country is priceless and it has cemented my connection to my heritage.

Corned Beef and Cabbage?
St. Patrick's Day in the United States - the celebration is marked by green beer, leprechauns and "wearing of the green". Somehow, none of that reconciles with what I know of my Irish heritage and it seems to make a mockery of the rich culture of the Irish. Growing up, my Grandmother would send us authentic St. Patrick's Day "badges" with live shamrock which my Mom would proudly pin to our school uniforms. There were no special meals or other traditions partly because the holiday has generally (until recent years) been celebrated as a religious holiday in Ireland and partly because the touchstones of our Irish heritage - the food, the music, etc were really already incorporated into our daily lives so there was no need to do anything differently on March 17th. In this National Geographic article, another daughter of an expat Irish family recalls a similar experience - badges with shamrocks and all!
photo by нσвσvia PhotoRee

Me - Irish Step Dancing at Feis, circa 1985
At the same time, however, we celebrate St. Patrick's Day so raucously in the US thanks to the long history of Irish immigrants who have made this country their home. The experience of maintaining connections to your roots and pride in your heritage - no matter how many generations back - while still pledging allegiance to this country is a uniquely American experience. I am happy to be in a country where these connections are celebrated and enjoy watching everyone being "Irish for a Day" - I realize now that it doesn't diminish my heritage at all but rather adds to the richness of it.

Beannachtaí na Féile Páraic oraibh! (visit here for translation and pronunciation)

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Review and Giveaway: When We Were Strangers

When We Were Strangers: A NovelWhen We Were Strangers: A Novel by Pamela Schoenewaldt chronicles the emigration of Irma Vitale from Opi, Italy to the United States.  The story is at once heartbreaking and hopeful as Irma moves from the harrowing boat trip across the Atlantic to a boarding house in Chicago - along the way her innocence is violently taken from her but she also discovers a strength no one knew she had.

This work of historical fiction is set in the 1880's and opens in Irma's village of Opi, Italy.  Irma is coming to the realization that there is nothing left for her in Opi - her brother Carlo has already emigrated to Cleveland, her mother has died and her father has recently "taken up" with Assunta - a local woman considerably younger than him.  Irma is a talented embroiderer but she is considered too unattractive to be married - in a small farming village that leaves her with few options.  Despite her reservations, she decides to leave Opi behind and go to America.

You Will Die With Strangers
One of Irma's reservations is her fear of living among strangers - coming from a small village where everyone knows each other's families for generations.  When she was alive, her mother would tell her "If you leave Opi, you will die with strangers".  This caution haunts Irma and follows her across the ocean; throughout the novel there are a number of poignant scenes of immigrants dying and Irma holding vigil for them so that they do not die alone. Irma also mourns being away from her own family when one of them dies saying " . . . those you love and leave behind will be dead to you. Someone else will close their eyes".  There is something about the importance of the ritual which surrounds death and mourning and not being able to take part in that while you are separated that I found terribly heartbreaking. 

Irma is such an endearing character - I found myself rooting for her throughout the novel.  Even as early as on her boat passage to the US, Irma began to show signs of her developing strength.  When asked what she knows about Cleveland, she replies, "Nothing.  Except that I had chosen it, having chosen so little in my life." Like many immigrants, there is an element of choice in her move to a new country even though she has so many fears and misses those at home terribly.  In time, she begins to assimilate and realizes she is different now from those left behind and Opi and even those just now arriving.  At the same time, with her broken English she would certainly be recognized as a foreigner in Chicago - being trapped between both worlds is something most immigrants experience and can leave one feeling very lonely. Irma continues on, however, determined to make a life for herself in this country she has chosen.

Historical fiction, a great immigrant story and an endearing main character - this book has it all! I am certainly looking forward to what this debut author has in store for us in the future.  You can read more about the author, Pamela Schoenewaldt, and her own experience as a foreigner living in Naples in this guest post.  You can also hear her chatting with the Book Club Girl  on March 7th.

Thanks to Julie at Harper Collins, I have two copies of When We Were Strangers: A Novel to give away.  One will go to a participant in The Immigrant Stories Challenge and the other to any other entrant.  This give away is open worldwide and I will select winners on Friday, March 11th.  To enter, just fill out the form below.  Good Luck!