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    Stirring the pot of memories

    By MARK HAYES

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


    You know that big wooden spoon you use to stir the marinara sauce? Take the spoon out of the pot, dry it off, and you could use it to bop someone on the head really good. Depending on your family, you might have been bopped on the head by your mother after some smart remark you made in the kitchen. You might have even deserved it. And if you were a fair-minded child, you might have wanted to bop one of your parents on the head with that very same spoon. And yourparent might have even deserved it. This is the nature of the wooden spoon, and this is often the nature of family: What can feed you can also cause you great pain.

    Walking this line between nourishment and punishment is Rita Ciresi's fourth book, SOMETIMES I DREAM IN ITALIAN, which follows the growth of two born-of-immigrants Italian-Americans from girls to women -- dalle ragazze alle donne -- in the course of 13 emotional, honest and witty stories. The interrelated tales in this collection begin with the early childhoods of Angel and Lina Lupe and their struggles to establish a sense of self somewhere between the all-assimilating mainstream American culture and the severe, stubborn, Old World values of their working-class Italian neighborhood in New Haven. The older sister, Lina, is defiant and reckless as a child, bitterly tragic as an adult. Lina serves as a model (and warning) for Angel, the narrator of these stories and a more thoughtful, careful and steady person.

    In story after story Lina and Angel smartly and savagely dissect all they dislike about being Italian and being the daughters of such embarrassingly archaic figures as their mother and father -- Mama and Babbo. Precisely crafted and compelling, these stories draw the reader into a world that, as much one might already know about Italian-American life, holds wonderfully detailed description and rich characterization.

    As with most good short fiction, much is learned in a few sentences, such as these from the story SODA MAN: "I had inherited Mama's light complexion, but Lina had Babbo's olive skin. We both had hair so jet black it shone like the hood of a freshly waxed Black Maria. Lina at least had cheekbones to make up for her big nose, but I had a face as round as a melon and a peasant's heavy chin." The anxiety over appearing too "Italian," leads into concern over class -- that is, being daughters of a man who drives a soda-delivery truck. What's more impressive about this collection is how Ciresi uses her fictional subject to examine quite honestly issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, materialism, memory -- and many other themes stirring around in the pot. Individual concerns open up into universal ones. The reader can root along with Lina and Angel in their hopes to get out and commiserate when they find life in mainstream America is no better than what they had.

    SOMETIMES I DREAM IN ITALIAN manages to be loving but unsentimental, nostalgic but mature, and looks back on the people that were there and then and wonders just how everybody managed to get to be here and now. You don't have to be Italian or have a big wooden spoon to understand that.

    Mark Hayes teaches at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa.

    SOMETIMES I DREAM IN ITALIAN

    By Rita Ciresi

    Dell, $23.95

    Festival author

    Rita Ciresi will sign copies of SOMETIMES I DREAM IN ITALIAN Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Borders Books & Music, 12500 N Dale Mabry Highway, Carrollwood. Ciresi, who teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida in Tampa, also will be a featured speaker at the Times Festival of Reading Nov. 11-12 on the Eckerd College campus in St. Petersburg.

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