Holy Reluctance, Batman: The Patron Saint of Ugly by Marie Manilla

maid

Garnet Ferrari refuses to believe that she can heal anyone. It’s just a coincidence that all of the heartbreaks of psoriasis, pustulating epidermis, and marred acne complexions she encounters are miraculously healed. “Saint Garnet,” she of the Sweetwater, West Virginia backcountry, is not responsible. Just ask her.

Marie Manilla’s Italo-Appalachian tale, The Patron Saint of Ugly, revolves around the Catholic Church’s canonization investigation of second-generation American Garnet Ferrari and Garnet’s frantic attempts to derail the Church’s efforts.  Garnet’s high-born Virginia mother meets and marries a working class Italian, much to the chagrin of both families. Garnet, her parents and her golden brother Nicky settle in Sweetwater, West Virginia, watched over by her paternal grandmother, the formidably capable, malocchio-fighting, superhero Nonna Diamante Ferrari whose voice is a frequent interrupter of Garnet’s narrative.

Though pilgrims world-wide claim to have been healed by Garnet, she herself is disfigured as described by the Vatican’s envoy, Archbishop Gormley:

The background tone of her flesh is pale, but the birthmarks decorating her skin are varying shades of purple: deep mulberry, magenta, the faintest mauve. It looks as if someone took a map of the world, cut out continents and islands, provinces and cantons, and glued them willy-nilly on Garnet’s body. I distinctly identified Alaska on her right cheek, the Aleutians trailing over her nose; Mongolia on one shoulder; Zaire on the other; Crete on her knee; Chile on her ankle; and many others. There is a kind of beauty in her birthmarks; God’s holy design is imprinted on her skin.

map of the globe

I had the pleasure of meeting and spending the better part of a week “porch-sittin and wine-sippin” with West Virginia-born, Italian-American, author Marie Manilla at the Hindman Settlement School Writers’ Workshop last August. I had an equal pleasure in reading Marie’s glorious novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly, shortly thereafter. It’s a fairy tale, a morality tale, a novel of Southern Gothic mysticism and Italian malocchio (evil-eye) enchantment and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. It reminded me a good deal of Eudora Welty’s The Robber Bridegroom, another fantastic, tall-tale with a fascinating heroine.

fear of women

Nonna remembers when the neighbors got their first look at me. It was a fall afternoon when she and Mom tried out the new strollers.  Mom went first, pushing Nicky, with Nonna and me several paces behind. The hill women hand not seen their flaxen-haired boy in months, and they had never seen his cloistered little sister. They raced forward with offerings, their own children toddling beside them. “Where is our beautiful boy?” Gonna sputtering ptt-ptt-ptt. Next they veered toward me; Mom and Nonna hoped decorous manners would prevail.

They did not. When the women inspected me, their hands flew to their mouths. What’s wrong with her? Is she contagious?”

“Of course a-not!” Nonna said.

But the children bawled at the sight and ran home, chased by their mothers who slammed their doors, windows too, and then the drapes.

Kirkus Reviews compared it to Tristam Shandyhttps://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/marie-manilla/patron-saint-of-ugly/ As Nonna would said, “not a-bad. Not a-bad at all.”

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I emailed Marie and told her I had planned to write about The Patron Saint of Ugly and she remarkably sent me her family recipe and some background which is integral to her work . . . and fascinating as well. I am MAKING THIS this weekend!

Grandma Conchetta

Marie Manilla’s Grandma Conchetta

I dedicated the novel to my grandmother, Concetta Ferrari Lapelle Manilla. Unfortunately, she died before I was born, but the family lore is that she escaped an arranged marriage back in Sicily by selling some of the family jewels and hopping a ship to America. This made her a hero to me. Her second husband was my Calabrian grandfather, a stone mason who lived in Huntington, West Virginia, where my father was born. It’s also my hometown. Apparently Grandma was a fabulous cook who, according to Grandpa Manilla, “Could even make shit taste delicious.” My mother lived with them for about a year after she and my father married. Mom remembers Concetta making pasta by hand and draping it over the dining room chairs to dry. As soon as the men left for work and the breakfast dishes were cleared, Concetta would say in broken English: “Now it’s-a time to start cooking the supper,” which always included a side serving of pasta. Concetta never wrote any of her recipes down, so when she died, her recipes went with her—except for her spaghetti sauce, which my father used to make once a year. It was a grand and sacred production. He never wrote the recipe down either, but Mom watched him make it enough that she recounted it for me as best she could. It’s very simple, and I can still remember the smell and distinctive taste. No one has made it in its pure form since my father died in 1993, though some of us have tried, often adding additional spices and meats, though the flavor is never quite the same.

Concetta’s (and Dad’s) Spaghetti Sauce

4 pounds of beef short ribs (as opposed to pork ribs, which are more commonly used)

6 cans of Contadina Tomato Paste

Water

Salt and pepper

Brown the beef short ribs in two big spaghetti pots Add salt and pepper Add Contadina Tomato Paste Fill pots to the brim with water Simmer for two days—two days!—until the water reduces, the sauce thickens, and the meat is falling from the bones. Serve over pasta with garlic bread, a salad, and plenty of red wine.

I would serve this spaghetti sauce with good bread, several bottles of Italian red wine (http://www.winemag.com/August-2014/5-Summer-Italian-Reds/) and a lovely cheesecake for dessert.

MUSIC

Once again, Marie provided the soundtrack to her writing process which will make a fabulous soundtrack for your book club’s discussion of The Patron Saint of Ugly. Heck, it’s a fabulous soundtrack for day-to-day living as far as I’m concerned!

While I was writing the novel, the soundtrack playing in my head included Italian-American singers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney. When I had my Patron Saint launch party I bought CDs of all of these singers. My Italian-American husband suggested I also include Italian singer, Domenico Modugno, whom his Italian grandparents adored.

Here’s a selection of particular favorites:

Frank Sinatra: “I’ve got the World on a String” (for Garnet—my globe-speckled narrator) and “Witchcraft” for Nonna’s belief in the Evil Eye and Le Strega—the witch who lives atop Garnet’s hill.

Dean Martin: “That’s Amore” and “Volare.”

Rosemary Clooney: “Come On-A My House” and “Mambo Italiano.”

Domenico Modgno: “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu” and “O Sole Mio.”

Louis Prima: “Just a Gigolo,” “Oh Marie” (for me), and “Angelina” (for my mother-in-law).

Tony Bennett: “Stranger in Paradise” and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

MOVIE CASTING

Garnet — Emma Stone

Nonna Diamante — Christina Hendricks (Don’t get mad at me. She needs to be able to play Diamante as a young woman too!)

Dominick Ferrari — Steve Buscemi/Frankie Muniz

Angelo Ferrari — Armand Assante/Mark RuffaloPatron Saint Cover 65

La Strega — Jessica Lange

Read it. You’ll LOVE IT. Happy Reading and Eating!

 

 

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Come Sail Away: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Vaultier

Some of my favorite novels are set in Paris. And some of my favorite novels are books about readers. The Little Paris Bookshop encompasses both.

Monsieur Perdu lives a small life in Paris, mourning a love lost decades ago. He is the proprietor and prescriber extraordinaire on the Literary Apothecary, a floating book shop barge on the Seine. He fills his life at 27 Rue Montagnard by eavesdropping on his neighbor’s celebrity gossip, eating a routine set of meals, reading and refusing to think of the love who left him 21 years before. By day, he prescribes books (with the occasional refusal of sale of an inappropriate read) to those who board the Literary Apothecary. His primary companions are a couple of literary lovers.

. . . he pippisaw Kafka and Lindgren sloping toward him beneath the avenue of trees that lined the embankment. Those were the names he’d given to two stray cats that paid him daily visits on the basis of certain preferences they had developed. The gray tomcat with the white priest’s collar enjoyed sharpening his claws on Franz Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog, a fable that analyzes the human world from a dog’s perspective. On the other hand, orange-white, long-eared Lindgren liked to lie near the books about Pippi Longstocking; she was a fine-looking cat who peered out from the back of the bookshelves and scrutinized each visitor. Lindgren and Kafka would sometimes do Perdu a favor by dropping off one of the upper shelves without warning onto a third-category customer, one of the greasy-fingered type.

But Monsieur Perdu’s life is upset by two arrivals: a new boarder at Rue Montagnard and a young, successful novelist aboard the Literary Apothecary. With no plan, Perdu upsets his entire life, gives “the gangway a few powerful kicks to release it finally from the ground,” and sails forth on the Seine with no destination other than “‘Away from here!'” And it is then, as with most river trips, the big adventure begins.

I truly enjoyed this book, much in the same way I did The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store and Shadow of the Wind.  It is ultimately a book about a man who loves books and sees books themselves as a healing, medicinal force. I agree with him. In a critical review by Amanda Vaill, the Washington Post called international bestseller The Little Paris Bookshop a “novel [that] tastes like artificially flavored cardboard.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-little-paris-bookshop-by-nina-george-exudes-all-things-french/2015/07/28/d9bc549c-2b39-11e5-a5ea-cf74396e59ec_story.html

Kirkus Reviews called it “a warmhearted, occasionally sentimental account of letting go of the old loves to make room for new.”https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/nina-george/the-little-paris-bookshop/

I thought it was lovely. Yes, it’s sentimental. But if you are taking me on a river trip aboard a novel-filled barge into Provence, a peck of sentimentality is perhaps to be expected, and appreciated. I think your book club would love The Little Paris Bookshop.

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Croissants

Fish Provencal
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup canned diced tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
10 oil-cured black olives, pitted, sliced
1 teaspoon capers, mashed
4 (6-ounce) firm white fish fillets, like snapper
Sauce: Heat oil in saucepan. Add onion and garlic; saute for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add tomatoes, thyme, bay leaves, olives and capers; simmer, uncovered, over medium heat 15 minutes. Remove and discard bay leaves.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Coat broiler proof baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Place fish in single layer in baking dish. Bake for 10 minutes.
Remove dish from oven. Increase oven temperature to broil. Spoon sauce over fish. Broil fish 3 to 4 inches from source of heat for 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

MUSIC

I would intersperse some great French music with tango. On a new find (for me!) lastfm.com, you can enter “French chanson” and have a whole night of Serge Gainsborough, Edith Piaf, and Jacques Brel.

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