Claudine D'Angelo-Dotzman

Claudine D’Angelo-Dotzman is a writer, educator and lover of words. She is an Adjunct Professor at Passaic County Community College where she teaches Composition and Public Speaking. She is also an MFA candidate in Creative and Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University. Claudine has published both short fiction and book reviews. Her translations of work by Mexican poet, Jaime Sabines, have been included in Twentieth Century Latin American Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology. Her fiction explores place and ethnicity and how they shape both individuals and communities. Her musings about life, the arts and her nonna’s handmade gnocchi can be found in her blog, “The Un-real New Jersey Housewife”. Claudine and her husband live in the beautiful wooded hills of Northern New Jersey (no, really) with their four amazing and creative children.

Hard-Earned Hope

I’ve become a statistic. A mother of the one in one hundred ten children diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder in the United States.

When my son was diagnosed, his developmental specialist told me that I did not stand alone – there was an international community of people who had been impacted by similar diagnoses to whom I should look for support and education. At a time when I craved tranquility and unity I got a crash course in turbulence and division.  Members of the autistic community are pitted against each other based on whether or not they believe that autism is caused by the components in childhood vaccinations, whether or not they believe that autism can be and has been cured by a combination of diet and alternative therapies, and whether autism is a disease that needs to be cured or a difference to be accepted. Each of these groups is comprised of sincere people who are actively seeking ways to help their loved ones and themselves but somewhere in all of the friction they lost me.

I found consolation in a place I never expected it: Michael Greenberg’s Hurry Down Sunshine. It’s the stuff of nightmares: not the ones brought on by horror movies or too much spicy food before bed, but the kind of nightmare that seeps into the recesses of your mind and refuses to leave when you wake. A child, suddenly and seemingly without warning, is attacked by her own mind. For Greenberg’s daughter, Sally, this took the form of a psychotic break and diagnosis of Bipolar I. In his memoir Greenberg recounts the devastating impact Sally’s mental illness had on him and his family.

Greenberg does not mince words: “On July 5, 1996 my daughter was struck mad. She was fifteen and her crack-up marked a turning point in both our lives.”  This is not a sentimental account. At no point are readers asked to pity this man whose pain and love for his daughter are obvious. Like a news story of child abduction, his painfully honest style terrified me and made me hold my children a little closer at night. He demonstrates the feeling that many parents of children with brain issues have but don’t often express: sometimes having a child with special needs just stinks, but it can’t possibly take away from the love and dedication that I have for that child. This is a feeling that I have come to know only too well since my son’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and severe Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.

When I read this book for the first time I was so caught up in its narrative that I almost forgot that it wasn’t a novel. Greenberg does not give a straight account of his daughter’s “crack-up” and its aftermath; instead he weaves together a narrative that links events in time and place. He creates drama in the classical sense. For example, in one of the most rousing scenes of the book, Greenberg takes a full dose of his daughter’s medication in order to experience the mental state that causes her to be distant and lethargic upon her return from the hospital. While in the middle of his mind-altered state, a movie producer he has been waiting to hear from for several weeks insists upon an immediate meeting to discuss optioning Greenberg’s unpublished novel for a film. His medically induced calmness convinces the producer that he is up to the task of writing the screenplay.

The ending is not happily ever after, but there is hope. It was this type of hope, realistic and hard-earned, that I was seeking for my son and for myself. What has become clear to Greenberg, and me, is that while our children will always struggle with their minds and we along with them, if we are honest there is a place for joy, love, and hope, like the song from which Greenberg’s title comes: “I say hurry down sunshine, see what tomorrow bring.”

In our home this is the hope to which we cling because we’re not a statistic, we’re a family.

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Tony Soprano Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel, The End, deftly avoids all the stereotypes that plague many mainstream works of Italian-Americana: you won’t find any greasy gumbas hanging on street corners pitching pennies, no weak little old ladies in head coverings praying to the Blessed Virgin, and absolutely no mention of la cosa nostra anywhere. Instead, Scibona has crafted an artful novel that explores nationality, individuality, community, and what it means to belong.

This novel, a 2008 National Book Award Finalist, is woven around a single event: a race riot in Elephant  Park, an Italian neighborhood in Cleveland, that occurs during the Feast of the Assumption in August 1953. Yet the book is not about the riot; rather, Scibona uses it as a catalyst to bring characters together and eventually drive them apart. This unifying event is revisited multiple times from various perspectives. As a result, there is no chronological line to unite the work. Like a thousand-piece puzzle that only reveals its unity when all the pieces have been placed correctly, this novel demands close attention.

The first section recounts the complete narrative of Rocco LaGrassa, the hardworking and boorish neighborhood baker, as he leaves his monotonous life of work and sleep, traveling to New Jersey to join the family that has deserted him in order to mourn his youngest son who died in a prisoner of war camp in Korea a week before he was to be released. After this initial meeting, Rocco disappears until his presence is revisited from another point of view. The second part of the novel moves back in time and recounts the histories  and relationships of Mrs. Marini, an elderly abortionist; Lina, her heir apparent; Lina’s husband, Vincenzo; her son, Ciccio; and the Anglo jeweler who raped her. This section is punctuated by Mrs. Marini’s conversations with her long dead husband, for whom she had left her home and family in Italy. The final section revisits these conversations to explore Mrs. Marini’s place in the world.

Scibona’s winding plot never quite reaches resolution, as the most important element of The End is the psychological exploration of his characters. Characters are revealed through their thoughts and words, as well as those of the narrator, rather than through their actions. When we are formally introduced to Mrs. Marini, she is not in the middle of the action, nor is she revealed by physical description:

She was now sixty-eight. Death beckoned. And that was really too bad, because, having been anxious in her youth, disappointed in maturity, and then desolated in middle age, she had recently made a conspicuous turn: In what she expected were her final years, she found herself in possession of powers she had long ago given up home of acquitting. It was a windfall. She had become happy – no, exuberant.

Scibona focuses on the minds and internal lives of his characters – their actions and their ethnic groups are secondary. Being Italian and belonging in Elephant Park are taken for granted until outsiders are introduced into this community. There are only three points at which outsiders are addressed: the black youths whose dancing sparks the riot, the Anglo jeweler who rapes and impregnates Lina, and Gary, an American whose father was born in Elephant Park. “Gary didn’t come from here. He was born in a suburban hospital on the South Side. But he loved the feast. It gave him a warm feeling.”

Scibona’s language is haunting and requires careful reading for full understanding.  The prose often reads like poetry, causing the reader to slow down and experience the language while delving into its meaning. “The jeweler knows that the undiminished desire to be accused by name by this woman is the proof that he has failed… He has a name, too, that could save him from himself, that could turn him into a word if only she were to see him and call him by it… But she isn’t here, surely, she’s dead – the instrument of his salvation – he killed her surely.” The End rewards attentive readers with a rich tale to savor.