Friday, January 18, 2013

On Family and the Cycle of Life, From Italy to Delaware, and More on Christopher Castellani and His New Novel, "All This Talk of Love."

As folks who follow the book industry know, most larger publishers have moved to on sale dates from the traditional pub date system. The most recent convert was Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and it is said that Hachette (Grand Central, Little, Brown, and assorted other imprints and distributees). But many of the small publishers stick to the pub date program for all but their biggest releases, meaning you never quite know when a book is going to show up. It's always a bit of a surprise. I looked around yesterday and there was Christopher Castellani's new novel, All This Talk of Love. Castellani will be in Milwaukee on Wednesday, February 27 to talk about his latest.

Christopher Castellani’s novels about the Grasso family are not exactly a trilogy. I’d compare them more to a cycle, though a bit more connected, say, than the novels of Sebastian Barry. In true Daniel fashion, I didn’t read the first novel. A Kiss for Maddalena, which won the Massachusetts book award. It’s set in a village in Italy during World War II, where Maddalena is courted by Vito, one of the few remaining young men who has not gone off to war. I don’t want to give away the ending, but I should note that the second novel is set in Wilmington, Delaware.

Castellani first came to Milwaukee with Craig Poplears, on a marketing tour for Algonquin. He presented the books from their very bookseller friendly list in the basement of the Shorewood Schwartz. We also went to a baseball game with David. I don’t even remember if there was a public event. Or maybe I’m getting all my memories mixed up. Good thing I am not writing a series of novels which may or may not be about my family. But I shouldn’t worry about that. Family stories are great as the inspiration behind a novel; if you hew too closely to the actual story, however, they often acquire a stiffness.

And honestly, who knows if anything about Castellani’s stories are true at all, though I know he did grow up in Wilmington. I was chatting with a customer last week, whose family was also from that part of Delaware. I began to wonder if I should bring up the restaurant, though of course I did not know whether there was a restaurant (probably not) and if there was, what its name was. I could ask, I guess, but I didn’t, perhaps in an attempt to preserve the magic.

Just about everyone I’ve met in the bookstore has family stories that he or she thinks would make a great novel, but everyone forgets that this is the jumping off point. It has to also be a great novel, and Castellani has always gotten many nice reviews. For the new book, Claire Messud (the author of The Emperor’s Children, who also has a new novel coming soon) wrote:

“Castellani’s third novel is his richest and most beautiful to date. With particular wisdom, he follows each of his protagonists…as their dreams are compromised by the challenges of life and the bonds of love. The last third of this novel is as moving a rendition of the losses and discoveries of old age as I have ever read.”

Here's a bit more about All This Talk of Love. Antonio and Maddalena, an aging Italian couple in the Little Italy neighborhood of Wilmington, Delaware contemplate the ravages of aging. Can their son Frankie ever grow up? Will their daughter Prima avoid their own mistakes with her four kids? Who will take over the beloved family restaurant? And how can they all survive their earlier losses, most notably of their son Tony? When Prima decides to organize a trip back to their Italian homeland, all comes to a head and the bonds of family begin to show serious fraying. All This Talk of Love is a warm, wise, but never treacly story, a continuation of the Grasso family cycle, but which holds up just fine on its own.

There I am talking again about the earlier books. Because the first two novels have limited availability (we’ll have A Kiss for Maddalena available in hardcover, as the paperback edition is no longer available from Penguin, but we're not able to source The Saint of Lost Things at all), I have to make the case that you really don’t need to have read the first two novels to read this. And I think it’s a fair case. Maddalena is as full of grace (and a bit of uncertainty) as she was in her youth. She’s not the typical Italian stereotype either, but a singular soul, who can still has that young girl inside of her.

I should say a note about Castelani too, as I know a lot of our readers might be interested. He’s the artistic director of Grub Street (and was the former executive director) and curated The Muse and the Marketplace, one of the most vibrant literary conferences in the country, with over 500 authors, editors, agents, and other publishing folk participating.

Paul Salsini has interviewed Castellani for the Italian Times. I will link to it as soon as the next issue is out. And don't forget to keep up with our upcoming events page on the Boswell website.

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