Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book & Authors Series Continues to Wow Audiences

- A special combined review by Jessica Graae & Margaret Darby

The Delaware Humanities Forum couldn't possibly have anticipated such an overwhelming turnout at their second Books & Authors event for Christopher Castellani's The Saint of Lost Things on July 15. There was almost nowhere to sit as admirers, friends and family packed the room at the Union City Grill. Castellani's books, like the author himself, have tremendous appeal. His humor, warmth and compassion are evident in person as well as on the pages.

In The Saint of Lost Things, he paints a portrait of Wilmington's Little Italy during its heyday in the 1950s. With loving care, he creates interesting, vivid characters---each one with his own, often heartbreaking, story. Three talented young actors from project partner City Theater Company---Rachel Samples (Maddalena), Amanda Riveras-Parker (Carolina) and Matt Payne (Vito)---set the scene for us in the small, make-believe town of Santa Cecilia in the Lazio region of Italy.

Rita Truschel artfully carved a portion of dialogue from Castellani's first book, A Kiss from Maddelena. During this scene, we gained a glimpse into Maddelena's troubled relationship with her sister Carolina, and her lost love, Vito. Castellani reminded us, as he read from The Saint of Lost Things, that while he is writing of everyone's experience, he is also writing of no one's experience. We may be able to relate to his version of Little Italy, or small town life in Italy, but we all have our own perceptions and experiences. Castellani's psychological portrait of the immigrant Antonio, who thinks: 'Surrender even a little bit to your wife, he knows, and her voice gets louder and louder until it drowns yours out completely,' echoed my own experience with a Sicilian whose need for power and control dominated every aspect of his life and marriage.

Not only is Castellani a gifted observer and writer, he is very clearly a born mentor. In answering questions about his craft, he mentions, "the good news is: we are all qualified writers." The audience also got a taste of his manuscript in progress. Castellani told us it had been the most difficult one to write: Characters from his two previous novels make a pilgrimage back to Santa Cecilia looking for family, trying to "fill a hole" in their lives. Going home to find your roots can be a difficult process, but the author does it himself so fearlessly.

He was carried away by Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita and loves the 19th Century writers George Elliot and Thomas Hardy. He believes our lives are "made up of countless sensibilities" and that "[his] Italy is not your Italy."

Castellani's writing in The Saint of Lost Things gave me such a vivid picture of my 92-year-old friend Antoinetta's youth in Wilmington's Little Italy. I feel I know Nettie better because I was drawn in by his Maddalena character, peeking into her view of the United States and of her marriage to the man of her parents' choice. And how fun not only to meet the author, but also speak to his parents, his brother and sister afterward and discover that, yes, some of his writing is a spot-on description of his family and some comes from his prolific imagination.

Castellani brought me a new view of my friend Nettie's world and he and his family gave me an uncensored view of their own sensibilities. Hard to get closer than that to an author.


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