Professor, lecturer and scholar DeSalvo successfully blends catharsis and storytelling in an affecting story of immigrants in America. DeSalvo (Vertigo; Breathless; etc.) grew up in New Jersey, the daughter of first-generation Americans and the granddaughter of Italian emigres who spent much of their lives without much food-or happiness. Her culinary-centered essays feature the genre's requisite characters: the old widow who dresses in black every day, the drunken grandfather, the young mother who "tries to put her Italian past behind her" and serves her kids toasted cheese on white bread that sticks to the roofs of their mouths. Yet DeSalvo's chronicles are nothing like the many memoirs of growing up Italian-American that more closely resemble slapstick comedies. Rather, these recollections are tinged with pain and beauty. She writes of the depression her mother felt after never knowing her birth mother and being raised by her stepmother, a mail-order bride from Italy. She's frank about the constant bickering ("I'll break your head!" "I'll break your legs!") that dominated much of her childhood. She's up-front about her southern Italian heritage, which classified her grandparents as "dark" people whose "whiteness was provisional." And she addresses the irony of purchasing expensive organic produce when her grandparents sometimes subsisted solely on bread soaked in wine. Still, the memoir isn't all melancholic; dry wit and pride temper DeSalvo's prose, as she attempts to become "a person aware of inequities faced by Italian Americans in a country that has not yet fully equated the Italian American experience with the human experience." (Jan. 17) Forecast: With a five-city author tour of the Northeast, local New Jersey readings, a long list of acclaimed books by the author and solid reviews, this erudite but accessible book could have legs. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Employing her crusty step-grandmother's crusty Italian bread instead of a madeleine, memoirist and biographer DeSalvo (Adultery, 2000, etc.) adds to her remembrance of an operatic past. She offers not one interlarded Ruth Reichlian recipe. The cuisine in DeSalvo's childhood home wasn't the loving Italian sort with lots of tomato meat gravy on the vermicelli. Chef Boyardee, Dinty Moore, Chung King with Minute Rice, and Dugan's pastry were the staples of her troubled mother's menus, served with vitriol for Mom's old-country stepmother. Clad in classic black, the old lady glared and muttered in dialect. Family dialogue consisted of lusty curses punctuated by sudden lunges. It was Italian New Jersey in the 1950s, when old men descended to basements to make wine or, in winters, to sit near the warmth of the furnace. DeSalvo tells of strong men and steadfast women from Puglia and Campania, Sicily and the Abruzzi, superstitious and wary in a new land. She depicts a culture of put-upon wives and fierce husbands, of immigrants only reluctantly and never fully assimilated. The flavors of the old world were ever redolent, despite the Dugan's white bread. The author's family lore is marked by intergenerational warfare, recrimination, regret, hatred-and love, too. Beneath the crust there were, after all, tenderness and nourishment. The revelations mount, and lessons of universal significance are drawn from trips to the vegetable markets and journeys to Italy. DeSalvo finally finds pleasure in food, in tasting, and in preparing artfully prepared dishes. The dramatics of her youth, it seems, produced a superior, dedicated writer and a determined, devoted cook who may go a little crazy in the kitchen. Asin life, past tense unites with present in this juicy, tender text, seasoned with fear, loathing, and love served Italian style. Suitable for literary ladies, sensitive guys, and others, too. Agent: Geri Thoma/Elaine Markson Agency