Sunday, November 04, 2007

Stories Close to Home

In the last couple of weeks, I have come across three books set in Plainfield or Union County.

After hearing about “The East Enders” for many months, I finally got a copy last week. The book by A.J. Wood details the lives and customs of Italian immigrants who settled in Plainfield’s East End. The large extended families were an enclave unto themselves. Tradition ruled, especially at the dinner table. The book is full of recipes for dishes that are now restaurant staples but were once produced from backyard gardens and neighborhood meat markets.

The book also has phonetic versions of common Italian words. I first heard many of these terms after my Aunt Kay married Uncle Lou, one of seven brothers in a small Pennsylvania town. In the 1940s I learned to say “a-beetz” for pizza and got the knack of leaving off the last vowels of many other words. In the 1950s and ‘60s I heard the same intonations after marrying into an Italian family.

My experiences made the book’s content sound very familiar and I wondered how it comes across to people who never encountered the Italian-American culture close up, although by now popular films and television have given just about everyone a taste of it.

By chance, I came across “Going to Jamaica” in the Plainfield Public Library last week. Dubbed “A Political Thriller,” this book is authored by Alex Menza, none other than the late Superior Court Judge Alexander Menza, who also served in the state Legislature. Many Plainfield cases came through his court and he was very familiar with Union County and state politics. He writes of a world where people operate on both sides of the law, sometimes at the same time. Having covered the doings of elected and appointed officials since the early 1980s, I found some of the characters in the book to be types I knew well.

I bought J.M. Benjamin’s book, “My Manz and ‘Em,” a couple of weeks ago in the course of doing an interview about his success as an urban fiction author. His novel takes place in Plainfield’s West End in an era of drugs and violence. The cover photo was shot outside Elmwood Gardens, a place I often had to visit for crime stories. Death or jail took many of his young protagonists off the street. Through reporting, I became familiar with the culture he depicts. Benjamin has just opened a book section in a downtown store at 204 East Front Street.

Each of these books is interesting in part for the local angle. Plainfield especially is full of untold tales. I hope there are more story tellers out there who will find time to recount them.

--Bernice Paglia


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