Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Report: "The Madonna of 115th Street," by Robert Orsi

Like the many penitents he renders, Robert Orsi sees all things in "The Madonna of 115th Street."\

A scholar of things religious, and connoisseur of matters Italian-American, Orsi combines these two interests so that one defines and explains the other.

To the uninitiated, the Madonna of Mount Carmel is just a statue like countless others throughout Europe and the Americas that interprets the Virgin Mary in plaster relief.

But in Orsi's erudite hands La Madonna (and the faith she engenders) becomes an analytical tool that unlocks doors to discussion on Italian-American family life, the role of work, the trials of immigration, the history of colonization in the old country, and, of course, food.

His base of scholarly operations is the now-vanished Italian East Harlem, but those raised in the culture will recognize themselves, their families, and neighborhood networks in its residents.

The author did years of in-depth research, but found most of his truths on the streets of Little Italy. The resulting interviews may have informed the text, but don't make many actual appearances.

Much of "Madonna" is given over to Orsi's ornate reasoning, and even speculation, about the meanings of the religious icon, and how they can be discerned in the behaviors of mid-century Italian-Americans in urban New York.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Somebody had to do it and his thoughts mostly ring true. Where they don't, the opportunity for debate and discussion naturally arise, and that is a second service the author rendered.

Don't give this book to your Aunt Rosina in Coney Island unless she's got a college degree and a sociological bent. "Madonna" is a scholarly text that can be dense as a zeppole with academic jargon or leavened as a sfogliatelle with deeply meditative conclusions.

But it is a delightful trove of considerations on the Italian-American and immigrant experience; a beautiful piece of history that might have otherwise been lost to those who care them.

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