Book review: American English, Italian Chocolate, by Rick Bailey
English professor Rick Bailey writes a sweet, soft memoir in vignette-style essays stretching from the American Midwest to northern Italy.
Musings include high school dramas and levitation parties, medical issues humorous and otherwise, death, home insect infestations, historical perceptions of beans, how Nutella might taste better in Italy than in America, and, a favorite: observations on espresso making in Detroit. It’s all over the place, which makes it a fast read – it feels like no time passes at all between subject jumps, and that translates to reading in a breeze.
With essay titles like “Wisdom Teeth and Encyclopedia Britannica”, “Boy Scouts, Ringworm, and Paris”, and “Ravioli, Richard III, and a Dead Bird” you can get a pretty good idea of the kind of rambling (usually in a good way), meandering walk Bailey takes the reader on, through his swiftly-traveling trains of thought. Not every essay was stellar, I lost interest in a few (I may also be a teensy bit younger than the intended readership), but the bright side was the vignette-length means that if something doesn’t appeal, it’s over quickly; and his fickle attention means that the next essay’s topic will veer in an entirely different direction.
When forcing his wife to discuss (over breakfast no less) a kid at her church (the author attends only as a “spectator”) who constantly picks at himself, distracting Bailey immensely, she counters, “He’s probably bored. Doesn’t your mind wander?” Does it ever, he responds, and every reader says “We know.”
Bailey writes with a certain “dad”-like sense of humor; sometimes a little grouchy or baffled by unfamiliar concepts but well-meaning. He makes silly, safe-but-softly-implying-something jokes that you can imagine a dad or grandfather making. He uses a wry, dry tone, and even when poking fun or in exasperation there’s never any lurking meanness or bitterness. That’s refreshing to read sometimes.
The effect is light, summertime beach reading for those who can’t bring themselves to turn to anything mindless, even for a beach read.
Sometimes the humor surprises with how far it goes. I hated one piece discussing exterminating honeybees (I’m sure homeowners deal with all kinds of terrifying problems like bee infestation, and the big scary ones I can get behind exterminating, but for the love of Al Gore don’t poison honeybees), but he redeemed himself when he moved on to his housefly problem, which eventually reached biblical proportions, leading to his horrified research and discussion of how flies work and what they do:
Thirty-six hours after emerging from its pupa (a word I do not like and hope never to write again), it is ready for sex…Humans evolved some two hundred thousand years ago and have been full-blown Homo sapiens for around fifty thousand years. Flies have been around for some sixty-five million years. When they buzz, they buzz with a kind of confidence we can only imagine.
I never thought I’d laugh at a passage that mentions flies emerging from pupas and mating, and yet here I am.
His wife grew up in Italy, and the country features as backdrop in several pieces, whether they’re getting locked out of their vacation rental apartment, talking down traffic tickets, or figuring out the proper way to give a Bongiorno greeting to the villagers.
I particularly liked one essay when he shops for underwear, on the enthusiastic recommendation of a friend, at an Italian outdoor market where a vendor recommends a pair of briefs emblazoned with “SEX. KISS.” It was so typical of an American-in-Europe experience, and he told it so well and even somehow classily, considering the subject.
There’s a healthy dose of cultural, literary and scientific references, plus accessible analysis/pondering of the English language and linguistics thrown in, as the title indicates. It’s not heavy-handed, instead he interestingly points out things like the modern phenomenon of depicting characters vomiting or thoughtfully, stressfully showering in films when they’re distraught, comparing this to Shakespearean plays, where words are used to emphasize strong emotions. He manages to take unattractive or unpleasant topics and muse about them thoughtfully and without being gross. That’s a not insignificant interesting talent.
The summer release suits this collection well; it’s a light, readable companion for some amusement and summertime distraction.
American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance
by Rick Bailey
published July 1, 2017 by University of Nebraska Press
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.