Living in Italy: the real deal memoir

I love reading about other cultures, especially from a foreigner perspective. Natives tend to be inured to their surroundings while foreigners—those with open minds—are better able to see the delights and peculiarities of the land (and people) they are adventuring in. And so I had fun reading Stef Smulder’s memoir of moving from the Netherlands to an Italian village where he and his partner bought a house they dreamed of turning from ugly duckling to a swan of a bed and breakfast. And so began a grande lavoro (big project). Oh, my! “How to survive the good life.”

Stef wrote a series of short, light-hearted chapters detailed the amusing and often trying characters and situations he and husband Nico encountered as they settled into this new country.  Italian culture is quite different from their Dutch homeland. Fortunately, Stef knew enough Italian to get along. Finding the right house, dealing with government workers and paperwork, choosing di fiducia (trustworthy) workers who will spend many noisy months in your house—laugh so you don’t cry! Yes, the book reminds me of Under the Tuscan Sun, but with Dutchmen and a dog. A glossary of Italian words and phrases used is included at the end. You may want to learn some of those fun phrases.

The preface of the book says it is a work of fiction. Stef says it is a memoir but with tweaking to make it more entertaining. That’s often a consideration for memoir writers—when does memoir become fiction? If you are making up stories, then you have a book “based on a true story.” Incorporating dialog half-remembered or likely said, adding some unimportant flourishes, or changing names or otherwise altering people a bit to protect their privacy is okay as memoir. Stef and Nico really did buy a house with a lovely view of hilly vineyards, and eventually—we may think miraculously—it transformed from a grey concrete block to a beautifully landscaped home amenable to visitors. Take a look at the Villa I Due Padroni website and you may be tempted to book a vacation in the “Tuscany” of Lombardy, just south of Milan, a fresh breath away from the touristy cities. I know you would enjoy meeting Stef and Nico. Stef writes so personably, you will feel you are friends!

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If you like Italy, see also my post about A Zany Slice of Italy, where Ivanka marries an Italian man and discover his relatives.

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Memoir of art, music, history, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution

I was astonished to learn of her past. An unassuming aquaintance, Fangfang Xu, recently published her family memoir, Galloping Horses:  Artist Xu Beihong and His Family During Mao’s China. She did tell me her father was called the “father of modern Chinese art,” but I didn’t realize he was world famous, his work hanging in prestigious museums and selling for high dollars at auction. He is known particularly for his black ink paintings of spirited horses, hence the name of the memoir. It is said he was lucky to have died before the Cultural Revolution. His family struggled to preserve his art and his memory.

In her book, Fangfang exposes the harsh life under Chairman Mao from the unusual perspective of artists, musicians and teachers—intellectuals severely punished  for being “reactionary bourgeois.” People lived in fear of the merciless young Red Guards and the country closed in on itself and moved backwards. Although the Xu family was privileged to know many influential people, including Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, that did not keep them, “the children of dogs,” from suffering along with others.

gallopinghorsesFangfang filled Galloping Horses with incredible detail from much research, friend and family interviews, and notes she and her mother had kept. She spent six years doing research on the important events because “I want my book to have credibility for general readers as well as academic people.” Fangfang captures in story what went on during this time and explains the results and implications of the crackdowns affecting families, culture, universities, and the economy. I learned about Chinese art and teaching methods and about the art of music composition as Fangfang was an accomplished pianist at a young age. She made all of this easy to understand and the story line flows smoothly—I was surprised to see what an excellent writer she is, often poetic. I have read several books set during the Cultural Revolution, but nothing like this. I highly recommend this fascinating and poignant memoir for anyone interested in history and the arts or in a compelling story of survival.

I asked Fangfang how she remembered so much of her experiences. She said:

“As for the memory of my early life, I had written about some episodes in my compositions while in the music school. Even though I lost these compositions during the Cultural Revolution, I remember the content. It is an interesting journey to relive these formative years during my writing.”

You never know what incredible stories might be hiding in your friends.

For further information about Xu Beihong and to see examples of his work, see the Beihong China Arts website. Before reading Galloping Horses, those not familiar with Chinese pronunciation may want to learn the basic  x and q sounds—and Fangfang is  pronounced “Fahngfahng.”

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A journal is not a (good) book

Here’s something different:  Notes From My Phone* a self-portrait in her twenties is a compilation of notes Michelle Junot wrote on her cell phone’s notepad app. She wrote during her college years, posting her thoughts and prayers and grocery lists during “formative years of her life.” Two years later she came across the notes, bringing her back in time. A friend liked them enough to want to publish them, so a short book was born. Reviewers say it is honest and funny and captures life in all its mess and beauty, to paraphrase.

Have you thought of publishing your journal notes, or the old love letters between your parents, or even your old blog posts? Well, don’t publish them raw and unedited and in their entirety. Michelle had 500 notes and they were culled down to 180 of the better ones, leaving out the “self-indulgent and totally woe is me” ones and keeping the ones that “told a larger story,” the ones that covered shared human experiences. In another example, a WWI veteran’s 400 pages of notes were edited down to a 157-page book. I chopped down my Korean War veteran friend’s notes to about 215 pages, leaving out any stories that said nothing new.

The average journal-writer or letter-writer is not composing essays she/he plans to publish. To be interesting to strangers (and even family), a lot of editing needs to happen. A famous piece of writing advice is by Elmore Leonard:  I try to cut out the parts that people skip. You may think everything is important, but readers will not. What is the reason you want to publish? What do you want readers to learn, understand, experience? Gather the entries or letters that are most meaningful to what this overall message or theme is and then edit out the boring parts. You will probably need to add context, but what will be left after pruning is much easier and more enjoyable to read.

Lafayette-born author found a memoir in her smartphone’s notes

Sault teacher writes first book, turns soldier’s memoir into a ‘must read’

The art of memoir and writing about history

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