A Book Brahmin Interview: The Other Books in my Life

Aug 18, 2014


An Interview in Shelf-Awareness

Shelf Awareness is an online newsletter that reports news about titles getting buzz in the media. I was delighted to be interviewed as one of its "book brahmins."

 On your nightstand now:

A few months ago, my editor at Simon & Schuster pressed the galley of We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride's terrific debut novel, into my hands–and I'm so glad she did. I'm also savoring Frances Mayes's Under Magnolia, a poetic memoir about her Southern childhood. I always keep something about Italy at hand; right now it's Susan Cahill's The Smiles of Rome, an anthology of evocative pieces about the Eternal City. 

Favorite book when you were a child:

We lived just outside the city limits, so I couldn't check books out of the library. Instead, I'd spend entire afternoons reading at a little wooden table. The librarian would bring me wonderful illustrated volumes of Grimms' fairy tales, which I never tired of. My home library mainly consisted of Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keene. I remember reading Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell when I was 11 and thinking, "Wow, that's a book!"

Your top five authors:

When I was a young journalist, everything Joan Didion wrote electrified me. I long considered E.L. Doctorow the best possible travel companion. Ross King's books on Italian art and architecture inspired as well as informed me. I owe my love of history to Doris Kearns Goodwin and my love of biography to Stacy Schiff.

Book you've faked reading:

Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. I devoured the part about Italy, but at the time I was so xenophobic that I didn't keep going. You can't say, "I just read the first third…." I still have the book, however, and I intend to finish it, especially after deeply enjoying The Signature of All Things.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The InfernoDante Alighieri's, not Dan Brown's. I resisted reading it until a professor introduced me to an Italian comic-book version. Once I could follow the Harry Potter-esque plot, I got John Ciardi's translation and lost myself in the language and imagery. Italian friends say everyone should read The Divine Comedy at least three times: once in school to learn, once as a young adult to appreciate and once in old age to understand.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Anything with Italian food on it. I own at least a dozen Italian cookbooks with covers that made me drool. I've never tried a recipe from any of them.

Book that changed your life:

I started The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing when I was 21 and working at my first job. I became so engrossed that I called in sick because nothing seemed more important than what I was reading. Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue made me want to write the story of the language I loved–Italian–and that changed my professional life.

Favorite line from a book:

It's a line from Dante: "amor, ch'a nullo amato amar perdona," which roughly translates as a love so strong that it permits "no loved one not to love." Isn't that what we all want to feel?

Which character you most relate to:

When I was growing up in Scranton, Pa., girls became teachers or nurses (and, of course, wives and mothers). Then I met Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women and found a kindred spirit. She made me believe that I, too, could become a writer.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. There were passages that made my heart soar as if I were listening to an aria from La Traviata. I don't know if I could ever recapture that magical sense of transcendence.


Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. Click here for the latest post from her other blog, "Discovering Mona Lisa."


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