Journalist and editor Dianne Hales has written 16 books (Just Like a Woman; Think Thin, Be Thin, etc.) and 24 editions of a college health textbook. More than a decade ago, she fell so madly, gladly, giddily in love with Italian that she wrote a book about it: La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. In recognition of its role in promoting the language, Italy's president conferred a knighthood on Hales. Her passion for Italy's culture led to her quest to uncover the story of the real woman in Leonardo da Vinci's iconic painting, which became Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (Simon & Schuster, August 5, 2014). Hales lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
On your nightstand now:
A few months ago, my editor at Simon & Schuster pressed the galley of We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride's terrific debut novel, into my hands--and I'm so glad she did. I'm also savoring Frances Mayes's Under Magnolia, a poetic memoir about her Southern childhood. I always keep something about Italy at hand; right now it's Susan Cahill's The Smiles of Rome, an anthology of evocative pieces about the Eternal City. I like to read at least a few paragraphs in Italian every day, so I'm rereading with great pleasure Alessandra e Lucrezia by Angela Bianchini, the story of two remarkable Renaissance women, which I originally read while researching Mona Lisa.
Favorite book when you were a child:
We lived just outside the city limits, so I couldn't check books out of the library. Instead, I'd spend entire afternoons reading at a little wooden table. The librarian would bring me wonderful illustrated volumes of Grimms' fairy tales, which I never tired of. My home library mainly consisted of Nancy Drew books by Carolyn Keene. I remember reading Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell when I was 11 and thinking, "Wow, that's a book!"
Your top five authors:
When I was a young journalist, everything Joan Didion wrote electrified me. I long considered E.L. Doctorow the best possible travel companion. Ross King's books on Italian art and architecture inspired as well as informed me. I owe my love of history to Doris Kearns Goodwin and my love of biography to Stacy Schiff.
Book you've faked reading:
Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. I devoured the part about Italy, but at the time I was so xenophobic that I didn't keep going. You can't say, "I just read the first third...." I still have the book, however, and I intend to finish it, especially after deeply enjoying The Signature of All Things.
Book you're an evangelist for:
The Inferno--Dante Alighieri's, not Dan Brown's. I resisted reading it until a professor introduced me to an Italian comic-book version. Once I could follow the Harry Potter-esque plot, I got John Ciardi's translation and lost myself in the language and imagery. Italian friends say everyone should read The Divine Comedy at least three times: once in school to learn, once as a young adult to appreciate and once in old age to understand.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Anything with Italian food on it. I own at least a dozen Italian cookbooks with covers that made me drool. I've never tried a recipe from any of them.
Book that changed your life:
I started The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing when I was 21 and working at my first job. I became so engrossed that I called in sick because nothing seemed more important than what I was reading. Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue made me want to write the story of the language I loved--Italian--and that changed my professional life.
Favorite line from a book:
It's a line from Dante: "amor, ch'a nullo amato amar perdona," which roughly translates as a love so strong that it permits "no loved one not to love." Isn't that what we all want to feel?
Which character you most relate to:
When I was growing up in Scranton, Pa., girls became teachers or nurses (and, of course, wives and mothers). Then I met Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women andfound a kindred spirit. She made me believe that I, too, could become a writer.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. There were passages that made my heart soar as if I were listening to an aria from La Traviata. I don't know if I could ever recapture that magical sense of transcendence.