HOTEL OF THE SIREN

I am delighted to have my novel published.

Scantic Books

“Hotel of the Siren” by Antoinette Carone

Scantic Books is proud to publish Hotel of the Siren, the richly textured debut novel by Antionette Carone. 

In the late twentieth-century, before cell phones and the internet, Lucy comes home from work and finds her artist husband Jon slumped over his easel. Some days later, Jon dies. At his funeral, Lucy watches a lady in a green scarf linger by his grave. When Lucy later finds the green scarf carefully placed over Jon’s grave, she begins to suspect Jon may have been having an affair. Lucy collects Jon’s life insurance, sells her house, and moves to Naples, Italy. She takes the scarf with her. There, she changes her name to Lucia, meets new friends, enjoys running along the bay, and begins a love affair of her own with Antonio. Unbeknownst to Lucia, Antonio is The Lady of the Green Scarf’s cousin. Hotel of the Siren tells of lovers and a city where reality can differ from appearance and expectations can be overturned

Below is an excerpt, which I hope you will enjoy.

The day after Thanksgiving, Lucy decided to sort through Jon’s work. Now was as good a time as any. Things needed to be put in order. Not a simple task. She started by gathering blank canvases, sketch pads, paints, brushes, art books, pencils of every size and hue. These she packed into boxes and stacked them in the corner. On Monday she would drop them off at the Children’s Aid Society for after-school art classes.

Next Lucy turned to the paintings lined up along the wall. Some she would give to friends. Most she would take to the gallery to be sold. Jon had created a plethora of work, and recently it had been going for a good price.

The fifth painting she picked up struck her. It was a nude, a woman. Not unusual. Jon often hired live models. This model was tall and thin. She was seated with her right leg extended while the left leg bent with the foot touching the right thigh. Arms lifted, hands folded behind her head, she reclined on pillows piled against an ochre wall. She seemed to contemplate something beyond the frame that contained her. The woman was rendered in warm tones. Her skin was alabaster with pinkish-beige shadowing. Her nipples and aureole were a dark sienna with a muted vermillion undertone. A tint that only Jon seemed able to formulate. All shades of brown, except for her auburn hair which blended into cushions of rose-and amber. All these warm tones lulled the viewer’s eye until it was pulled away by the emerald green drapery around the woman’s shoulders. A long scarf fell between her breasts and over her right thigh, only just concealing her vulva but not her pubic hair, which was a lush chestnut and prolific. The effect on Lucy was disturbing. Something in the painting was familiar.

Instinctively, she shoved the canvas away from her. She sensed danger in the image but couldn’t articulate its cause. Unsettled, she reacted to something in the painting that she had seen in the past. Something no longer remembered, even, but it lay in the recesses of her mind waiting to be recognized, waiting to do harm. The threat centered not on the nude herself but on the green scarf. It was uncanny—familiar but strange. Lucy remembered having seen it, but it was nowhere in Jon’s studio, not with other fabric and props he used with models or for still life.

“Green,” Lucy remembered Anna saying, “is the color of healing.” But this green looked like the color of poison, the drapery languidly spreading to engulf and suffocate.

My imagination is on overdrive.

Lucy berated herself as she picked up the painting to place it in the stack for the gallery. Instead, she stood it against the wall, facing backward.

On Sunday, Lucy went for a walk. The painting had disturbed her more than she wanted to acknowledge. She had been nervous and restless since finding it. Instead of staring out the window and allowing Grimaldi to make use of her lap, she sought the outdoors. She enjoyed walking. It relaxed her..

Lucy walked the short distance through the dead leaves on the sidewalks in front of the houses on her street and onto the larger avenue. This, in turn, gave onto a street as old as the town itself. It had never been properly paved but surfaced with brick. Because of this, hardly anyone ever drove on the street. It was ideal for walking, though. Lucy advanced without conscious aim in whatever direction fate took her. The old road ended abruptly at the graveyard so curiously placed in the middle of this splendid neighborhood.

Finding herself at the cemetery, Lucy decided to visit Jon. Perhaps seeing the earth that contained him would make her believe time was truly passing. She might not remain frozen in grief. She loved the life she and Jon had shared. She loved the colors that stained his hands, the smell of oil paint on his skin, and the way he looked beyond everything when solving a problem with shading or line. She loved the way he beamed at gallery openings. All now and forever gone.

“I need to find a new mode of being,” she said aloud.

She wound her way through tombstones toward the oak and maple canopy that stood over Jon’s gravesite and searched for his grave. His headstone would not have been erected yet. There would be only a small white rectangular marker with his name. Lucy imagined she saw a figure move among the trees, and vaguely recalled an image of witches dancing around a sacred oak.

An acorn fell at her feet. She was standing under a spread-out branch an oak tree. A live oak, still bearing its leaves, although now brown and desiccated. The lawn too was sparse and dun colored. Then she saw it—the one point of color standing out in the monochrome of muddy earth and grey tombstones. Green.

An emerald scarf lay on the upturned soil of Jon’s grave. It was placed over the earth, like someone might cover a sleeping child. Lucy inhaled sharply. Her breath came cold and sharp, like the thrust of a knife. She picked up the scarf. It felt warm., as if laid there only a few minutes ago. It was made of fine wool but had no label. Perhaps it had been hand-knit, the stitches were so small and precise, soft and supple. The scarf was stunning.

Once home, she made directly for Jon’s studio. She laid the scarf on the edge of Jon’s easel. It draped in folds to the floor. It was the scarf in the painting!

Again, Lucy could not help but admit that the model was beautiful and her appearance the antithesis of her own. Now she pondered the idea that Jon had been deeply estranged from her. He did often say that if she lost just ten pounds, she would be perfect and had often asked her to let her hair grow and maybe have it straightened. But Lucy liked her curly hair cut short for easy maintenance. She resented his imposing his artist’s aesthetic on her. After all, her body was hers to control, not his. The notion that her husband might have been attracted to a woman so opposite unnerved her. But then, it was only a picture. Still, it was so sensuously and lovingly rendered.

The figure in the painting propelled Lucy to her bedroom mirror. For the first time since… when? Lucy studied herself in a mirror. She encountered an average-looking woman where once she welcomed an exotic one. This woman was not short, but she certainly was not tall either. She appeared sturdy rather than delicate, having ceded her youthful flexibility to her work desk, and in return, having been granted a little extra weight. That woman had once looked like a Botticelli boy, or so Jon had said. Dark brown hair, very curly, falling to her shoulders in ringlets. She hadn’t bothered with her hair over the past month, so now it was almost shoulder length again. In the soft and intimate shadows of their bedroom, her eyes seemed to be a plain light brown. But not always. They were perfectly capable of turning green in certain light. But green was not a color Lucy wanted to acknowledge.

You can order Hotel of the Siren here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09V34QY2Q

Presepio

One of my favorite Neapolitan traditions is the presepio.  Although the presepio is a representation of the Holy Family at the birth of Jesus, and is therefore part of the Christmas celebration, in Naples one sees them not only at Christmastime, but throughout the year.  In Naples time is a continuum;  all events co-exist.  One of my favorite walks is on Via San Gregorio Armeno, where artisans are working on the figures in the presepio at all times.  This street has been dubbed “Christmas Alley”, which I find annoying.  First of all, it is not an alley, but a via in the part of Naples that dates past Roman times to its Greek founding.  And, moreover, the presepio is not a mere seasonal ornament, but a part of Neapolitan life.
Below is an article by Anita Sanseverino who is an expert on Neapolitan traditions.  She recently gave presentations on the presepio for the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum  and the American-Italian Cultural Roundtable, both in New York City.  Anita elucidates the history and meaning of the presepio beautifully.

 

Il Presepio Napoletano

By Anita Sanseverino

 

In the Italian language, the word ”Presepio” means “Crib.”  Now we use the word to refer not just to the manger, but to the entire edifice and all of the scenes.  It is not considered a “presepio” when only the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child are represented.  That is the nativity or as it was referred to in the past:  “The Sacred Mystery.”

There were representations of the birth of Christ as early as the 2nd century A.D. but the type of nativities and presepi that we see today are said to have had their origins with St. Francis of Assisi.  In the year 1223, St. Francis took a manger, which was used to feed animals, filled it with hay, placed a few live animals around it, and had a Mass celebrated in front of it.  This representation did not have any figures of the Holy Family.  That came later.

Later, three dimensional scenes were created.  The oldest one still in existence in Italy is in marble created by Arnolfo Di Cambio in the 1300’s and can still be seen at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.  Later, in other places in Italy and in Europe, other artists created the expanded scenes.  At one point, the Jesuits took charge of the Presepio tradition, in order to promote the teachings of the Catholic Church.

It is important to not that the Golden Age of the Presepio took place in Naples, Italy when Carlo di Borbone, who developed a passion for the presepio, became the King of Naples in 1735.

Until this point, the presepio was the domain of the church.  With King Carlo, it moved from the church to the place; from the palace to the grand homes of the nobility; until this tradition reached the general populace in the 19th century.

At the time of Carlo’s reign, the city of Naples was the capital of the Kingdom of Naples, so the city experienced a flourishing art and culture community, and because the King himself developed such a passion for the presepio, it became one of the greatest expressions of Neapolitan art.

Eventually, an entire industry of artists and artisans grew around the making of the presepi – this included artisans who specialized in specific items.  There were artists who were masters at creating figures of animals, exact replicas of musical instruments, miniature fruits and other foods, and of course, the faces of the human figures.  No detail was overlooked in order to make every scene as realistic as possible.  The King’s own presepio grew to include about 6,000 pieces, which were displayed in the Royal Apartments and the public was invited in to view this spectacular scene.

The unique aspect of the Neapolitan presepio was its representation of Naples itself.  Their genius for the portrayal of the full range of the human condition is evident in the figures themselves – and the scenes are set in Naples, not Bethlehem – so that Naples, in effect, becomes part of this monumental event in human history.  The landscape, and all the various types of labor are represented.  Daily life in Naples is reflected in the riot of colors, the crowded scenes of the city, the marketplace, the vendors, the musicians:  not only were there shepherds and Wise Men, there were people of every level of society, going about their daily business.

And at the pinnacle of these street scenes, sits the Holy Family – that Sacred Mystery – and they are shown sitting under a broken temple, rather than being portrayed in a stable or cave – because this broken temple Signifies the Triumph of Christianity over Paganism.  But the genius for portraying scenes of daily life in such an exciting way enables one to feel the liveliness and almost hear the noise of the city!  At the same time, you can see in the faces of even the improvised characters, that the artists have given them a dignity, a purpose, a sense that they too are as important in this event, as are the three Wise Men.

They have shown by integrating the full range of society with the story of the birth of Christ, king of the world, coming to us by way of poor parents, born in a simple hut, that rich or poor, healthy or lame, we are all alike in Christ – that a person’s worth comes not from noble birth, but that all human beings have dignity because they are creations of God.  This is the message inherent in the Christmas story and the Neapolitan Presepio portrays this message in the most creative and human terms.

 

Here are some photographs of presepi that Jim and I took during our stay in Naples last fall.

 

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One of my favorite presepi takes up the whole ground floor of a building in Via Sapienza. It is always present and may be visited at any time. Here is part of a scene with shepherds.

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Neapolitan houses with a man looking out from his balcony. Neapolitans consider it a great thing to have a balcony.

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Detail of a fishmonger’s stall

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Detail of stairs leading to the home

 

Below are scenes from one of the presepi in Amalfi.  This one is built into a fountain and again, may be seen whenever one visits Amalfi.  It shows the whole spectacle of a village, high and low, rich and poor:

 

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All Souls’ Day

As November draws to a close and I think of our Thanksgiving Day tradition, one which we celebrated joyfully, I also remember other, perhaps darker, traditions observed in this month in another part of the world.  This episode of the Sebastian Stories was inspired by such.

Chiesa San Giovanni delle Monache-17th Century (Detail)

The simple pleasure of warm sun.  That was what I longed for and this was only the first day of November rain.  The damp of the villa penetrated my bones.  The chill was unrelenting.

The pool had been drained and covered for the coming winter.  This had been done yesterday on All Souls’ Day, that is November 2nd.  It’s odd to think that only three days ago, we were still swimming in its balmy water.  Even yesterday I remarked upon the trees surrounding the pool – at a respectable distance to avoid a clogging abundance of fallen leaves.  These trees still held on to their foliage, so stately and proud.  But Sebastian said one must think ahead and had the pool drained and covered while I was out shopping.

I walked down Via Costantinopoli in the stillness of dead and dropping leaves, leaves that had been on the trees yesterday.  The sun was out, heating the stones in Piazza Bellini where the old dog from a nearby café lay warming his ancient bones.  I made my way to my favorite pastry shop on Via Tribunali where my mouth watered at a display of nougat candy called torrone in the window – all different kinds vanilla and chocolate, of course; but also green nougat which was pistachio and also coffee nougat.  Some with almonds; some with hazelnuts.  I had noticed that these confections had appeared in the shops around the beginning of October, along with chestnut gelato.  (This I bought for myself every chance I got, since it was seasonal and would soon disappear.)

When I returned home with a large package of various torrone, I found the pool drained and covered.  I had hoped for one last swim, but it was not to be.  Maria took the package from me, saying it was too heavy.

“Why is there torrone only at this time of year?” I asked her.

“It’s for the dead,” she answered.  “The white nougat is molded into a long form and represents the bones of the dead.  For us all life has meaning,”

Maria then told me that All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day fall exactly between the time of the year when day and night are equal and the time when the daylight is shortest, that is the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.  At this time of year the veil between the worlds of the living and dead was thinnest.  On All Saints’ Day, we honor all who were holy; All Souls’ Day is the appropriate time to take care of tasks for the living.  It is the day on which ordinary people are remembered and prayed for.  She said that we want the dead to assist us in life, so we must honor them.  The custom of propitiating the dead was initiated by Romulus after the founding of Rome.  Romulus did not want his brother, with whom he argued then killed, to return and seek vengeance.  Autumn can be a malevolent time and we must be cautious.

Sebastian and his family had begun their festivities even earlier, on the evening of October 31st.  Hallowe’en.  My favorite holiday when I could disguise myself as whatever grabbed my fancy.  I had always been attracted to costumes and fantasy.  But here in Naples, we spent the day wandering around the cemetery, wandering amongst graves and finally visiting the family vault.  I did not mind, however.  I had found another way of being in the quiet dignity of this place.  Just keeping still, letting something happen it its own good time.

Workmen were preparing another vault.  For Sebastian and me?  There was a third unmarked stone on the ground, so small that I tripped over it while looking at the names in the mausoleum.  It seemed ominous at first, but then I considered that I was merely being drawn in by the mood of my surroundings.

Sebastian’ mother, Signora Flora, talked about her late husband Raimondo as if he had only just been placed in the mausoleum, whereas he has been there for twenty years.  The stone is already beginning to wear at Raimondo’s name and likeness because Signora Flora has passed her hand over it so often, letting it linger over his face.  She has not remarried.

La Signora tries to keep close to Sebastian and he does not seem to mind.  I sometimes wonder how he ever managed to get away to New York.  What must La Signora have thought when he returned with a wife!

Today the scirocco came.  It started with a few drops of rain.  Then wind – in full force.  Sebastian had been right about draining the pool.  By the afternoon, the trees were completely bare, and the cover was chocked with leaves and red dust.  The cars on the street looked as if they had been in a sandstorm.  Red dust covered everything, and craters had formed where giant rain drops had landed.

“This is the dust of Africa,” Maria told me.

I stayed inside the villa and tried to stay warm.  I was tired just waiting.  I felt heavier and bigger today.  I could hardly move and nowhere, but nowhere accommodated my great belly.

“Soon,” said Maria.  “It will be soon.”

But it would not be so very soon.  Isabella was due on Christmas Day.  (Maria had said it would be a girl.) We were hoping she would come early because Christmas Day was Sebastian’s birthday.  La Signora said that it was a sin to be born on Christ’s birthday and the poor creature would suffer just as Sebastian did.  La Signora, I suspected, had prevailed upon Maria to brew a potion that would make Isabella come ahead of time.  I intended to refuse all drinks that I didn’t brew myself until the middle of December, when I felt it would be safe.

To stave off the damp left by the sirocco, late in the afternoon I made myself a cup of expresso and arranged a sort of nest of the cushions on the divan.  Sebastian brought me a small piece of each of the torrone I had bought.  As I sipped and sampled, blue seeped through the sky and with it the sunlight.  I thought of the next holiday, one that Sebastian and I would celebrate together.  I lay back in gratitude for the warmth of both the sun and Sebastian.

Thanksgiving Caponata

My first Thanksgiving with my new wife’s family.  My wife is famous for her pumpkin pie, her mincemeat pie and her sweet potato cupcakes – all made with traditional New World  ingredients setting off “Olde England” traditions.  They are gracious, my wife’s family.  They suggest I bring a traditional Thanksgiving dish of my own.  I agree.

“What are you bringing?” they query.

“Caponata”

“What’s that?”

“A lovely concoction of eggplant and other things.”

“It’s Italian?!”

“An old family recipe I learned from my landlady in Naples”

“That’s not traditional.”

“Depends of where the tradition originates.  For me the tradition of being thankful originated when I was living in Naples.”

I was an art student wandering through the churches and museums of the most artful city in the world.  I had rented a small apartment in an old palazzo in Via Pisanelli and often Gina the landlady would invite me to come down to her apartment for dinner.

strada-pisanelli
Strada Pisanelli

In Naples Thanksgiving Day is just another Thursday.  The day before I had attended a sculpting class and afterward I wandered around the Historic Center looking at guglie.

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Guglia in Via dei Tribunali

I had never been one for sentiment, but something about the chill that had only just now crept into the air and the recent appearance of chestnuts in the open air markets made me thing of roast turkey and stuffing.

There was no question of returning “home” for Thanksgiving – no time and no money foreclosed that option.  So when Gina asked me why I looked sad, I told her about Thanksgiving and said I felt the lack of celebration that year.

“Tomorrow we will have something special for dinner,” she promised.

Gina was famous for her caponata.  Every guest who came to dinner requested it.  It was always a little different every time she made it.  When asked for the recipe, Gina willingly gave it, but because she always improvised, so that when her friends made caponata it was always different from hers.

The next day, Thanksgiving, Gina went to her favorite vegetable market in the Spanish Quarter.

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Buying Vegetables in the Spanish Quarter

I brought Gina a swordfish steak from the market on Via dei Tribunali,

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Swordfish for sale in Via dei Tribunali

and hung around her kitchen and watched her while she prepared that and the caponata.  All the while we sipped some excellent Lagrima Christi. 

Since I have a very good visual memory, I was able to duplicate the Thanksgiving caponata and it has been my traditional offering ever since:

First, cover the bottom of a heavy 2-quart pot with olive oil (about 1/2 cup) and heat it.  When a drop of water sprinkled on the oil sizzles, it is time to add oregano, red pepper and parsley – lots of it – and a little salt.  (All this is to suit your taste.)

Next in this mixture of oil and herbs sauté 4 cloves of minced garlic, 2 ribs of celery and ½ green pepper, all chopped up.  Cook until the vegetables are soft and translucent.

Add 4 medium salad tomatoes, chopped.

When the tomatoes have melted and the mixture seems like a sauce, add one medium eggplant, diced in about one-inch pieces.  Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  The time it takes depends on the eggplant, but it’s usually ½ to 1 hour.

When eggplant is cooked, add 2 tablespoons of wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of raisins, 2 tablespoons of capers in brine, and ½ cup olives, green and/or black.  Cook another 10 minutes just to let the flavors blend.

If you let the caponata sit several hours before serving it, the flavor improves.  You can even prepare it the day before.

I am thankful to Gina for this delicious dish and for all the other wonderful things she made for me.

I told my wife’s family that I am famous for my Thanksgiving caponata, but I never give out the recipe.

© Antoinette Carone 2016

Naples

I am delighted to have received my first royalty check for Ciao, Napoli.  Thank you, my friends, for all your support and encouragement.  I am sharing some more photos of Naples in hopes that you will enjoy them.

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Vesuvius seen from Corso Vittorio Emanuele

This was the view from the street where we lived during our latest sojourn. Corso Vittorio Emanuele.  Since the Corso is at the summit of a hill, we unfortunately did not have this vista from our apartment.  Our apartment was six flights down from the street, an arrangement I have found only in Naples.  We actually descended and if we wanted to descend further rather than climb six flights to the street, we could emerge in the heart of the Spanish Quarter on a street where our friend Antonio who was born in the Spanish Quarter had never been to before he visited us.    The Spanish Quarter had in the past a reputation for being unsafe.  We were fine, though.  It’s like living on the Lower East Side.  It’s an interesting and upcoming neighborhood.

 

Via dei Tribunali

Via dei Tribunali is one of the old Roman Roads and is still in use.  For me it is the gateway to the historic center and is the essence of Naples — new built upon but never fully concealing the old.  Cars wriggle in and out of narrow Roman alleyways which lead to high-end trendy shops in buildings that are centuries old.  I love to shop here and usually buy from street vendors.

 

Fountain in Via Forcella 2Fountain in Via Forcella

Via Forcella is the street we usually walked to get to the train station if we were making an excursion outside the city.   This was a scary street full of motorcycles and fruit vendors.  It was interesting to discover who was important on the street by watching who ceded passage to whom, whether on a motorcycle or expensive car.  The first time I was in Naples, I wandered into this street by mistake.  I noticed people staring at me, wondering what I was doing there since I was obviously not from the neighborhood.  I found my way out as soon as I could.  It seemed all right though when Jim and I would walk the the train station.  The fountains seem to have disappeared the last time we visited.  It’s still a rough neighborhood, but we passed through without incident.  I did get the sense of being watched, but because we took this route regularly, we seem to have been regarded as gli americani who pass by from time to time.

IMG_0699 Body of Naples StatueBody of Naples

The name of this statue is the Body of Naples.  It is also a personification of the Nile.  We passed it frequently in the historic center, also on our way to the train station or on our way to one of our favorite restaurants.  It is said to have been there from Roman times and is considered a very important landmark.

Bay of NaplesBay of Naples

The rocky formation is the distance is Capri.  A friend told us that Capri forms the image of a sleeping woman.  Here you can see her bosom and her hair floating on the water.  Naples is replete with alluring images.  City of beauty and risk.