What Books Adriana Trigiani Keeps on Her Shelves and by Her Bed – The New York Times
What books are on your night stand?
The last words I read before falling asleep stick with me, so I go for humor with a little wisdom. I prefer slim books, because they look nicely stacked next to my lamp shaped like a hunk of Capri coral. Currently, I have “Tutto Su di Me!,” by Mel Brooks (because I’m studying Italian again), “Social Studies,” by Fran Lebowitz, “Having a Baby Can Be a Scream,” by Joan Rivers, “Me of Little Faith,” by Lewis Black, “A View From a Broad,” by Bette Midler, “Lake of the Ozarks,” by Bill Geist, “If Someone Says ‘You Complete Me,’ RUN!,” by Whoopi Goldberg, “Ten Fun Things to Do Before You Die,” by Sister Karol A. Jackowski, “Bunny Bunny,” by Alan Zweibel, “My Life Is a Situation Comedy,” by Bill Persky, “All I Know About Animal Behavior I Learned in Loehmann’s Dressing Room,” by Erma Bombeck, “What Would Susie Say?,” by Susie Essman, and the perfect lullaby for Italian Catholic girls: “Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault,” by Cathy Guisewite.
What’s the last great book you read?
“Reflections and Shadows,” by Saul Steinberg with Aldo Buzzi. Steinberg shares the story of his youth in Romania in a family of colorful characters, his student years in Italy dodging dimwitted Fascists, and his escape to America where he became the revered cartoonist at The New Yorker.
Are there any classic books that you only recently read for the first time?
“Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year,” by Carlo Levi. When Levi, working as an artist in Turin, is banished to a remote village in southern Italy because he opposes Fascism, he chronicles his observations of the people in the region of Lucania. Levi could have become bitter. Instead he turned his punishment into a work of art.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Silence. Comfort. Feet up, by a window. Mug of hot coffee with cinnamon and cream, Post-its, a Flair pen to make notes. I keep these books close by because every time I read them, I find something new. “Journal of a Soul,” by Pope John XXIII, helps me to pray with intention. I read the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove and Nikki Giovanni for sustenance. The playwright/poet Kenneth Koch (“Bertha,” “The Red Robins”) is the Norman Laliberté of avant-garde theater, ideal reading for artistic courage. “Sex and Shopping,” by Judith Krantz, for navigating home and work. When I get weary, I reread David Niven (“Bring On the Empty Horses”). Niven helps me fall in love with the creative life all over again — as do the canons of Jeanine Basinger, Scott Eyman, Rex Reed and Tom Santopietro. I appreciate when authors write about their lives through the lens of their art form: the fashion editor André Leon Talley’s “The Chiffon Trenches,” the screenwriter/author Anita Loos’s “Fate Keeps on Happening,” the bandleader Peter Duchin’s “Ghost of a Chance” (written with Charles Michener) and “A Photographer’s Scrapbook,” by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, are glorious reads in this category.
‘I’ll read any self-help book with the word vulnerability in the flap copy because it makes me feel included.’
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“My First Seventy Years,” by Sister M. Madeleva, Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. She opens with: “You may find this book disappointing.” I didn’t. She was a poet, lover of books and for 27 years president of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind. She built the arts center and auditorium, and the actor Helen Hayes laid the cornerstone. She traveled the world with the message of empowering women. Our kind of nun!
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Our newspapers are dying and it’s a sin. As they shutter, so goes the truth. A lot of my research has been culled from The Chisholm Free Press on Minnesota’s Iron Range, (Veda Ponikvar, editor), The Richmond Times-Dispatch (Bill McKelway, reporter), The Coalfield Progress (the late Jenay Tate, editor) and The Big Stone Gap Post (Carl B. Knight, editor). Mr. Knight’s home office overlooked our back yard; we could hear his typewriter keys as he wrote. Later, his successor Bill Hendrick was a mentor, along with Mark Holyfield of WNVA News, where I was a reporter. My great-uncle, the author and journalist Monsignor Don Andrea Spada, was the editor of L’Eco Di Bergamo for more than 30 years. Silenzio when the newspaper arrived in the mail from Italy.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
I’ll read any self-help book with the word vulnerability in the flap copy because it makes me feel included. The first self-help book I read was “Taffy’s Tips to Teens,” by Dolly Martin. I quickly learned a center part does not favor my face shape. When you had a mother who resembled Dolores Del Rio, you needed a book with diagrams to tell you where to part your hair because my mom did not want to hurt my feelings.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
“How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years,” by Kaye Ballard with Jim Hesselman. The irreplaceable Jerry Stiller wrote the foreword. There are plenty of hilarious anecdotes but in the end, show business is brutal. Ballard does not sugarcoat.
The last book you read that made you cry?
They were tears of joy. I was in a fix when directing the movie “Big Stone Gap.” I was living with my mother again for the first time in 30-some years, driving her car and using her kitchen to save money. If you want to experience loneliness, direct a movie. It makes writing a book seem like a bacchanal. There was a problem with the script. Too many story lines, I was told. Too many characters, they said. Desperate, I went through my father’s books. I took it as a sign when I found “Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking: A Biography of Darryl F. Zanuck,” by Mel Gussow. About halfway through, Gussow writes of Zanuck’s adaptation of the novel “The Snake Pit”: “It was, after all, in almost a classic Zanuck sense, the story of one woman … the focus is on that woman and her problem.” As a result, I cut the scenes that did not serve the story of Ave Maria Mulligan and focused the script on one story line.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
My aunt Irma Godfrey, a librarian, gave me “The Story of Silent Night,” by John Travers Moore, for my 10th Christmas. It was the first book I ever owned. Still have it. A book is the best gift to give a child. It made me love her more.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
When I started researching “The Good Left Undone,” I had no idea that Scots of Italian descent were imprisoned and shipped away by the British government during World War II. “Collar the Lot!,” by Peter and Leni Gillman, chronicles what transpired in July 1940 when a Nazi U-boat torpedoed the Arandora Star.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Does it remind me of home?
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
Both, and I would add spiritually. A book that shores up your soul is a keeper. “The Tao of Travel,” by Paul Theroux, “Toward a Meaningful Life,” by Simon Jacobson, and “The Dream Book,” an anthology edited by Helen Barolini, all in their own ways, are guidebooks for happiness.
How do you organize your books?
Touchy question in my home right now. I hope to install floor-to-ceiling shelves with the ladder on wheels, like Audrey Hepburn had in “Funny Face,” so all the books are in one room. But I’m clumsy and my husband predicts death by card catalog. Presently, books are everywhere — an enormous cookbook collection in the kitchen (Bonnie Slotnick has been feeding my addiction for years), the hallway, the office, every inch is filled with books. And here’s the crazy thing. Whenever I need a title, I manage to find it.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have all of Edna Ferber’s books: “So Big,” “Giant,” et al. A few are signed in her regal cursive style. Don’t get me started on handwriting! Her autobiographies, “A Peculiar Treasure” and “A Kind of Magic,” were not best sellers but should have been. Everything she wrote then matters now. When she returned from a trip to Europe in the 1930s, she wrote about “clownish” dictators, including Hitler, who was considered a joke. The great writers can see into the future. Beware the clowns.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was a constant reader. “Voracious” doesn’t nail it because it implies enthusiasm or animation. I disappeared into books. My mom was a librarian who taught me to revere books. At home, I remember “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” with pictures by Hilda Miloche, and “The Book of Knowledge,” my dad’s childhood encyclopedia from the 1940s. My mom gave my daughter “Strega Nona,” by Tomi DePaola, when she was born.
The first thing we did as a family in Big Stone Gap, Va., was to sign up for our library cards on the Wise County Bookmobile. Mr. Varner, the librarian, allowed us to sit on the snap stools as long as we wished. The books were behind wide straps of elastic so they wouldn’t fall off the shelves when he navigated the twisty mountain roads. He recommended the divine “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White, “Too Many Mittens,” by Louis and Florence Slobodkin (we don’t talk about that master illustrator enough!), “Pippi Longstocking,” by Astrid Lindgren, and “Theater Shoes,” by Noel Streatfeild.
Ernestine Roller, my elementary and middle school librarian, turned me on to Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle,” Beverly Cleary’s “Fifteen,” “Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh, and the Bobbs-Merrill series “Childhood of Famous Americans.” I like to think I read them all — how else could I tell you about the childhood of Babe Didrikson Zaharias? My pal Douglas Brinkley could because he was as obsessed as I was with this series. Of course, he turned it into a career as a historian, while I retain how the athlete Jim Thorpe liked his eggs. Middle grade reads: “Bless the Beasts & Children,” by Glendon Swarthout, and Dr. Irwin Maxwell Stillman and Samm Sinclair Baker’s “The Doctor’s Quick Teenage Diet” (drink a lot of water and eat hot dogs without the bun).
Billie Jean Scott, my high school librarian, allowed me access to the magazine stacks. I should’ve been reading Tiger Beat, but I preferred Life, Time and Look from the 1940s. She recommended “Spencer’s Mountain,” by Earl Hamner Jr., and “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” by John Fox Jr.
When the public library opened in Big Stone Gap, I became captivated with “They Had Faces Then,” by John Springer and Jack D. Hamilton. This compilation of Hollywood movie stars of the 1930s was rarely on the shelves because I checked it out constantly. When I last visited the library, out of curiosity, I went in search of it. The last person to check it out was me.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
If I understand this question correctly, it’s essentially a double date I’m putting together here. So, I’m going to punt my husband for the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (whom I find very attractive). We would dine with his contemporaries: the playwright and critic George S. Kaufman and the novelist Edna Ferber at my kitchen table. I would make spaghetti with traditional gravy and add my mom’s bracciole. Good wine because these three would know the difference. Chocolate fudge for dessert from “Candy Hits,” by ZaSu Pitts. We’d discuss Scott Meredith’s “George S. Kaufman and His Friends.” I found this magnificent doorstop about life in the golden age of American theater in the library of the Milbank House, a boardinghouse in Greenwich Village where I lived when I first moved to Manhattan. The library had been donated by Irving Berlin. I imagined Berlin had read all the books before giving them away, so they seemed magical. In the end, they were.