Friday, March 6, 2009

Friday's Special Is...Dating da Vinci!

DATING DA VINCI by Malena Lott

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How can Ramona, a young widow who teaches English to immigrants, get her groove back? Find out in the humorous and heartfelt Dating da Vinci by Malena Lott. A tale of love, longing and la dolce vita. When handsome Leonardo da Vinci walks in to her classroom, she helps him find his way in America while he helps her on her journey to find la vita allegro, joyful living. Publisher's Weekly raves, "written smartly...satisfying and uplifting."



I NEVER INTENDED TO take home da Vinci. I don't mean "a da Vinci" as in a reproduction of the man's art, best known for his Mona Lisa and Last Supper paintings. I mean to say I took home Leonardo da Vinci, the living, breathing man; only not that man, the genius from the fifteenth century, but a young Italian immigrant who shared his name in modern day Austin, Texas.

It is far more accurate to say I took home Italian for dinner.

It began innocently enough, with me breaking my rule yet again not to get involved with a student, but I assure you I had never gotten this involved before.

My students, all adults ranging in age from their twenties to their sixties, shuffled into the cramped classroom with the wide-eyed wonder of children on the first day of school. I smoothed my blonde hair behind my ear and reviewed the student roster on my clipboard: eight students, five languages. Of the 6,912 known living languages in the world, I had personally encountered more than fifty in my role as an English language instructor to immigrants (including those speaking languages most Americans have never heard of, like Balochi, Dari, Pashto, and Tajik). But it wasn't an unfamiliar language that caused me to catch my breath. It was a name, jumping off the page like a typo or emblazoned in lights on a marquee. The usual: Miguel, Margarita, Jesús-Spanish; Helena-Swahili; Jayesh-Farsi; Pénélope-French. And lastly, the one that caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand: Leonardo da Vinci-Italian.

My best friend says that funny tickle is the breeze of fate telling you your life is about to change, but I'd been walking around in a fog so long I barely noticed.

I surveyed the students-none remotely resembling an Italian. I'd encountered people with famous names before: a homely grade-school friend named Elizabeth Taylor, a high-school boyfriend named Bill Clinton, even a wiry bank teller with the macho moniker of John Wayne, but someone named after perhaps the greatest genius of all time? This I had to see. I imagined he would resemble the only sketch I'd ever seen of the artist da Vinci: a self-portrait he'd made in his old age, with a crazy long beard and deep wrinkles. I wondered if Cecelia, my friend in admissions, was playing some kind of joke on me.

I watched my students take their places, smiles plastered on their faces as they exchanged pleasant nods to their classmates. A smile was the universal hello, even if it wasn't genuine, but it soon would be. I wished Americans could see how well the students got along: people from vastly different areas of the world, from all walks of life, from peasants in remote villages to descendants of royalty. My students shared one distinct characteristic that bonded them for life: they were outsiders desperately wanting in.

I could typically tell who was whom from their appearances. Their skin colors ranged from the very fair, belonging to a lanky French woman to the rich ebony of an African. Their dress was the second cultural marker, though you could tell how quickly they planned to assimilate if they wore American-style clothing.

I passed out the workbooks, noting that da Vinci was still missing, if he existed at all. Getting lost in America was common, something that we concentrated on heavily in the first six weeks-how to get from point A to point B was critical for survival. Each student carried a map with color-coded instructions. My building, the Panchal Cultural Center of Austin, was in orange. I noticed the map was the one item all my students carried in their hands. I waited a few minutes longer for da Vinci to show, but when he didn't, I started my class as I did each semester, with a welcome in my students' languages.

"Karibu! ¡Hola! Bonjour! Xosh amadid!" I welcomed them with a smile, my hands clasped together then widening in a warm gesture.

My students replied back in their native tongues, pleased that we had made a verbal connection. I knew the word welcome in a hundred languages, but was only fluent in four: German, French, Spanish, and English. As a linguist, I knew enough to get around in dozens of foreign countries though I'd never traveled anywhere outside of the United States, except for Mexico where I went with my husband every year for vacation. My heart paused as I thought of him, but soon resumed its normal rhythm. I'm not certain how long it takes a broken heart to mend, but I hadn't done anything to speed along its recovery.

In fact, my life had become so simple and routine that I began to believe survival mode was the only mode, or at least the only mode for me. My only source of adventure lay before me, the seven students who would hang on my every word, unlike my two sons, who grew more belligerent with each passing year, especially with their father gone. After Joel died, I wanted nothing more than to stop communicating altogether, yet finances forced me to work right through my grief. In the almost two years since Joel's passing, I found myself more comfortable with complete strangers from around the globe than I did with my friends and family.

I liked that each semester began with a blank slate-I did not know them, and they did not know me. They were floundering to make it in America, I was floundering to make it through another day. I had never had so much in common with my students. For the first time in my thirty-six years, I didn't fit in, either.


Answer the following question for a chance to win a free copy of DATING DA VINCI:

What's your favorite story about your childhood friend, PeeWee Herman? (Not the PeeWee, of course, but that kid who unfortunately shared the famous name.)

Stop by and hang out with Malena! Maybe we can even break out a few languages. Go nuts!


Anonymous said...

Welcome Malena! Welcome everyone!!

Friday's are the best, aren't they?

Perfect date night. Da Vinci or otherwise.

Malena Lott said...

Thanks for roasting me today. LOVE Fridays! It will be 80 again here in Oklahoma today so I'm planning to work early and play the rest of the day.

I'll check in now and then. Looking forward to it.

Anonymous said...

80. Whoa. Must be nice!

Chris Eldin said...

LOL @ taking home an Italian for dinner!!! AHHAHAHAHAH!

Antonio, I hope you stop by!!

This looks FUN!

laughingwolf said...

welcome malena... love the concept and excerpt

was always fond of da vinci and his work, the original, 15th century one, since i know nothing of your fellow... yet ;)

the pee wee of my grade school was nothing like the yahoo who later appeared on his own tv program and film... for one thing, she was a she, blonde, with beautiful blue eyes, and... wait for it... part italiana

but what a practical joker, even at age 8

the one i remember best was her filling an empty airline size bottle of jack daniel's with water, and sneaking it into her aunt's handbag, wrapped in a handkerchief

when the poor woman reached into her bag for the hanky, to dab at her eyes at the front of the church as she eulogized the passing of a dear friend, the bottle, of course, fell out and crashed to the floor, to her utter humiliation... she was a strict tee-totaler!

Anonymous said...

Malena, what goal do you shoot for when you're writing? What do you want readers to take away from the experience?

Malena Lott said...

Great question. I'd say my primary goal is to give the readers an entertaining story that will resonate with them and make them look at their own lives in a new way. In DA VINCI, the theme is creating your own renaissance and finding joy, even through grief. I'd say with what's been going on with the economy, most everyone can relate to that. Hardship IS a great chance to step back and evaluate our life and see what we can do to change and improve things instead of just falling back into the "familiar."
A lot of readers have told me DA VINCI made them feel better about their marriages - appreciating their spouse - so that's great, too!

Chris Eldin said...

Malena, what kinds of books do you like to read in your spare time?


Antonio said...

Ah, yes. La vita allegro izza nice. I amma hoping she finds it.

Rachel said...

The PeeWee of my childhood was most often called WeePee. Not out of malice but because even the passing of a butterfly would bring tears to her eyes. She found joy in everything which is a great quality but maybe hard on the tear ducts. The waterworks really started when something funny happened. She laughed until she cried. Ah, WeePee, the memories! :)

This books sounds really interesting and I love the environment of a classroom of outsiders. Did you do any research into ESL students, especially adults, and what their lives are like when they first begin to explore their adopted country? What a fascinating topic to learn more about.

Malena Lott said...

I read at least a couple of books per week and I tend to be drawn to women's fiction, mainstream fic and lots of non-fic. I love books about psychology, neuro-science, creativity. I've read a few memoirs lately. I review books over at so largely it depends on what is sent to me by the publishers, so I'm always reading new authors I hadn't heard of before, and I still buy a lot of books, too.

I got the idea for the ESL angle from a news story that was on TV about new citizens and I thought how interesting it would be to have so many different cultures in one room. Because I wanted Ramona to be a linguist with a great passion for words, I gave her an occupation that helped her to deal with all sorts of languages and think about the universal "language of love."

I didn't talk to an ESL teacher, but I do marketing consulting for a university and I've always been intrigued by students who come to America from abroad. That's where I got the idea to have Leonardo be a student at UT in Austin.

Sarah Hina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah Hina said...

This sounds like a rich, inspiring story, Malena. We all need a bit more of la vita allegro, I think. :) And I like that each of them seems to have what the other needs. Congratulations on the great review!

As for poor Pee-Wee, there was an unfortunate incident in gym class that involved pantsing and the blurry, morning decision to go commando.

Before then, the kid's name had simply been Robert. :P

Malena Lott said...

Thanks for visiting and for the nice comments.

The PeeWee that comes to mind for me: His name was Martin, a scrappy tow-head who wanted to be Michael Jackson and did everything in his power to emulate him: dance moves, white glove, bad karaoke renditions of Thriller on the playground...

Anonymous said...

Malena, I can definitely see some of those moves.

Anonymous said...

Malena, thanks so much for sharing your book with us! I know I'm intrigued. You're definitely going on my TBR stack.

Go ahead a pick your winner!

Margay said...

I think my younger brother was the pee wee of my youth - and my adulthood. He always made me laugh.