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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

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Even if you haven't read a book by Mario Puzo, you probably know at least one character he wrote. Here's a clue, Marlon Brando played him in the movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GODFATHER")

MARLON BRANDO: (as Don Vito Corleone) I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life. I don't apologize to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those big shots.

CORNISH: "The Godfather" is Puzo's best-known novel. The writer Zoe Ferraris, Italian-American herself, thought she knew everything there was to know about Puzo. Then she stumbled on one of his earlier works, and it surprised her. She recommends it for our series You Must Read This.

ZOE FERRARIS: There's this dark charismatic thing about the Italian men I grew up with. They were like Don Corleone in "The Godfather." All that personal power would either inspire you or crush you, but it kept you in line. Growing up, I loved that book, but I didn't understand why there were no interesting women in it. All they did was cook pasta and cry in the background. This was supposed to be the novel about Italian families, so where were the senoras? And then I discovered "The Fortunate Pilgrim."

It was a book that Mario Puzo wrote in 1964, five years before he wrote "The Godfather." I was expecting some sloppy book with guns and sex and macho guys, but it's not that way at all. It's literary and brilliant and covers all the right stuff: life, love, poverty and death. The story is about Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo. She's an Italian woman living in Hell's Kitchen in the late 1920s. She's really poor, but she has other problems too. Her husband is in a madhouse. Her oldest daughter is acting way too American, and her son is getting mixed up with the mafia.

But Lucia isn't exactly the crying pasta-cooking type. She's keeping her family alive through the worst circumstances in this tough, almost savage way. We do see her act vulnerable. In one scene, her husband is hospitalized after he threatens their baby girl. You can feel her crumble. But then she has to decide whether to bring him home, and she's just so terrifyingly cold about it. She can't afford to be generous. So her husband stays in the hospital forever.

Puzo once said that Lucia Santa was based on his own mother, and that he never could have created "The Godfather" without her. He even wrote: When the godfather opened his mouth, in my own mind, I heard the voice of my mother. Mannaggia. After all these years, it turns out that the don is actually based on a woman. Mario Puzo liked "Fortunate Pilgrim," the best of all of his books. And I have to agree. "The Godfather" can keep its macho guys. I'll take this Italian mama any day.

CORNISH: Zoe Ferraris recommending Mario Puzo's novel "The Fortunate Pilgrim" for our series You Must Read This. She's the author of "City of Veils." Her new novel, "Kingdom of Strangers," is out next month. At our website, you can find details about all the You Must Read This selections along with lists of summer reads from our critics and correspondents. That's all at nprbooks.org.

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