Thursday, June 6, 2019

Neil Sedaka Canta in Italiano

What one thing do you wish you could write off against tax, that you (legally) can't. Make your case.

From Jim

I would like to write off my 2018 trip to Italy to research my next Ellie Stone mystery, TURN TO STONE. The only problem is that I wasn’t able to find the time to make that trip. Maybe I could write off all my previous trips to the paese del sole. Over the past forty years, I must have visited Italy twenty-five or thirty times. In an earlier career, you see, I was a failed academic specializing in Italian (and French) language and literature. Then, in 1994, as director of New York University’s Casa Italiana, I had the plum assignment of organizing the first summer program at Villa La Petra in Florence, a magnificent property left to the university by Sir Harold Acton. There were some university symposia and private visits as well, which resulted in multiple opportunities to travel to Italy. 

But my very first trip to Italy was in July 1978. At the time, I knew no Italian at all. When I crossed from France into Italy, I peered out the train window to see which city was our first stop. There were blue-and-white signs over the various doors on the platform. They read, “Uscita.” Hmm. Never heard of that city before, so I made an effort to memorize it. Then we pulled into the next station. Again there were the blue “Uscita” signs, and I felt like a fool. Uno scemo. For the record, Ventimiglia was the first station after the border, and “uscita” is Italian for “exit.”

Thanks to several Italian friends I’d met the year before in France, I got excellent instruction in Italian that summer. Thus began my lifelong love affair with the language. And I’m thrilled to put my experience and passion to use in my next book.

TURN TO STONE (Ellie Stone #7), coming January 21, 2020. (No cover art yet, but this image sets the tone nicely.)

September 1963.
In Italy for a symposium honoring her late father's academic work, "girl reporter" Ellie Stone is invited to spend a weekend outside Florence with some of the scholars attending the event. A suspected rubella outbreak leaves the ten friends quarantined in the bucolic setting with little to do but tell stories to entertain themselves. Making the best of their confinement, the men and women spin tales, gorge themselves on fine Tuscan food and wine, and enjoy the delicious fruit of transient love. But the late summer bacchanalia takes a menacing turn when the man who organized the symposium, Professor Alberto Bondinelli, is fished out of the Arno, "morto." As long-buried secrets—ghosts of the fascist ventennio and the Second World War—rise to the surface, Ellie must solve the riddle of who exactly Bondinelli was and whether one or more of her newfound friends wanted him dead.

Ellie Stone introduces TURN TO STONE with the following rumination on language.

(Photo removed) In the summer of 1963, Paul Anka and Neil Sedaka scored hits on the Italian pop charts. Andy Williams and Petula Clark, too. That fact, in and of itself, might have provoked nothing more dramatic than a shrug if not for the oddity that the songs were actually sung in Italian. All in Italian. It’s a jarring sensation to hear a voice you recognize singing in a foreign tongue on the radio. Language is an emotional, intensely personal faculty. Men have conquered nations to impose its dominance, written poems to document its beauty, and defined it at its most elemental as “maternal.” From our earliest days, we absorb language. It nourishes and sustains us, and we never manage to wean ourselves from its diet. It remains fundamental to our identity. No intellectual acquisition is more essential to our human distinctiveness. Nothing. Except perhaps a name. We are tagged with names and become what we are called. But, using language as a tool, names can deceive. They can hide secrets as discretely—and discreetly—as a mask. As faithlessly as a lie.

Since I was unable to travel to Italy last year, I had to rely on books, newspapers, and my own memories of past visits to Florence instead. Those trips provided the foundational research for my book, and I’d like to deduct their costs from my taxes. While we’re at it, I’d like to claim four years’ college tuition as well. After all, I studied Italian and Italian literature during those years, disciplines that form the backdrop of TURN TO STONE. 


Dietrich Kalteis said...

Good post, Jim. And all those trips to Italy, as well as schooling all sound like reasonable deductions.

Frank Zafiro said...

I wrote off my 2013 trip (some elements of it, anyway) as research for what became three different projects. All are still in the note-taking phase, so I don't know how that'll turn out if I get audited!

But I'm excited to read Ellie in Italia, and with the format you described.

Your 'exit' story is hilarious. At least you can say your favorite "city" in Italia is never that far away.