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Posts Tagged ‘Italy’

I read Amara Lakhous’s Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio in 2011, when I was first exploring Europa Editions in earnest. So when I saw Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet in Hoopla earlier in the week, I figured, why not? It’s also from Europa Editions. I had planned to possibly digress and try some other books but ended up sticking with my Europa streak. In between, I did try One Part Woman, which is the much discussed novel by a Tamil author, allegedly “charming” but I found the two main characters equally disagreeable and gave it up.

Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet is set in Turin, and the main character, Enzo Laganà, is a “southerner” – a man whose family comes from southern Italy. He is a reporter, but doesn’t seem to like it very much. He’s thirty-seven and showing no sign of settling down with a wife and having kids, so his mother hounds him, employing one of his neighbors and a housekeeper as spies, chiding him to eat what’s in his fridge (she has an inventory), and lamenting his careless life.

Enzo lives in the San Salvario neighborhood, a multiethnic place where he doesn’t feel as much like an outsider. His neighbor, a Nigerian named Joseph, has a little pig named Gino who wears a Juventus scarf. One day Gino ends up in the mosque, causing outrage. Enzo is also friends with the imam, and is well acquainted with an older man who runs an anti-immigrant neighborhood group. and has an old high school friend who is a committed animal rights activist, so he ends up conducting complex negotiations amongst the many parties who want to decide Gino’s future.

Meanwhile, bored at work and busy in Marseilles with a beautiful Finnish woman instead of on his beat in Turin, Enzo invents a story about Albanian and Romanian gangsters having a feud and files it with his paper, to cover the fact that he’s not there to investigate a string of murders. His editor eats up his “Deep Throat” story and Enzo is soon spinning the story further, attracting all kinds of attention, good and bad. As Enzo invents further, he begins to hear from another source, Very Deep Throat, who claims to have the real story of who is behind the murders.

Will Enzo’s mother leave him alone to fritter away his midlife? Will Gino’s happy ending be assured? Will peace be restored in San Salvario and the murders stop? Has Enxo stumbled on a real story while making one up? And what about the beautiful Italian woman who wants him to work on a TV series with her as a result of his newspaper stories?

An amusing novel with serious undertones. Very Deep Throat suggests Enzo interview a sociologist who explains how gentrification helps the mafia control real estate by “infecting” and “cleansing,” ratcheting up crime so people get scared and sell for low prices, and then moving their operations elsewhere and charging bonus prices when hip people want to move into the newly safe areas. His friends are from many cultures, national origins, and legal statuses. But despite the serious topics, Enzo’s story is absurd and that makes this a fun read.

 

 

 

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My book club decided to read The English Patient after the recent announcement that it had won the “golden” Booker, chosen by readers from a shortlist (selected by judges) of 5 books representing the five decades of the prize. I’d never read it before, but I had recently ordered Warlight, Ondaatje‘s recent novel, for my library and was curious to read the book he’s possibly most known for.

The copy I read has the movie cover — a marketing trend I dislike — with a blown up image of a kiss between two of the characters. This image misleadingly indicates that this love affair, between the man known throughout most of the novel only as the English Patient (because is burned beyond recognition) and the wife of a fellow desert explorer is the central story. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

The story is actually four fragmented stories which come together, as the people they belong to do, at the end of WWII in an abandoned monastery, Villa San Girolamo. Hana is the first to be there, when it was still an active war hospital. Only twenty years old, she has served as a nurse throughout Italy, where she has suffered her own losses as well as caring for dozens of wounded and dying soldiers. When the allied hospital staff move on she turns in her uniform and stays, in a place where she “felt safe  . . . half adult and half child,” with the English patient, who is too injured to move. For some time it just the two of them in the ruined building, which really isn’t actually safe. Then Caravaggio, a man described as a thief who was Hana’s father’s friend in Toronto, shows up after hearing about the strange young nurse and her patient. Finally Kip, a Punjabi Sikh man from a British sapper unit, comes to stay at the Villa, clearing it of explosives, sleeping in a tent in the garden.

Ondaatje provides only glimpses of each of his main characters, just as one might get from meeting strangers in a war torn place in strange circumstances. Of the four, it is Kip we come to know best, and whose future Ondaatje most clearly portrays. And it is the love between these four, the comradely love that develops when people are thrown together in loss and danger, that is really the centerpiece, not the English Patient’s and his Cairo lover’s. I still think it is accurate to call it a love story set in wartime. But it isn’t just about passion.

It’s also the story of the end of the colonial world, and the rise of a world where wars will now have “mutually assured destruction” hanging over them in the shape of no longer theoretical mushroom clouds. The most moving parts of the book, for me, are towards the end, when Kip hears over his crystal radio set about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is horrified, realizing that as he has been risking his life throughout the war to disarm bombs, the allies have been planning to unleash this new weapon. He sees, suddenly, that these people he has come to love and admire are the enemy of “the brown races” just as his militant brother in India has warned him.

This isn’t a book with a lot of action, although again, Kip’s story has the most. It’s a book with a lot of scenes in the dark, where the English Patient’s identity stays for much of the time. It’s incredibly interesting — salted with history, geography, literature and art, and a few real historical figures who appear as characters. And it’s a drama about the human capacity to wound and to heal.

 

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I picked up The Enchanted April from a library book sale shop in South Carolina. I knew it would be a fun read and it was. I’d never even heard of Elizabeth von Arnim (I had missed the reference in Downton Abbey). But I’ve read other New York Review of Books Classics titles, like Lolly Willowes and loved them, so I knew it was a good bet.

Now I want to track down other books by von Arnim. I loved The Enchanted April. It’s a simple story, but full of the trenchant observations about people and society that make many British novels so endearing. Von Arnim reminds me, in all the best ways, of Jane Austen, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Lively, Muriel Spark, and Jane Gardam: authors whose close (sometimes sharp) observations and skilled dialogue make the domestic situations they bring to life so vivid, so gently funny, and so easy to slip into, even if you’ve never been in the same situations.

In this novel, everything starts with the absolutely wonderful Lotty Wilkins. Mrs. Wilkins lives a desperately quiet existence in Hampstead, wife of Mellersh Wilkins, a “family solicitor” whose main interest in her is taking her to church, for the purpose of meeting old ladies in need of solicitors. The marriage is dreary, and Mrs. Wilkins’ life is dreary, and one very dreary, rainy day, she notices two things at her women’s club in London: an ad for a monthlong stay in April in a medieval Italian castle addressed: “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” and a Hampstead resident she recognizes from church, a Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot. In a sudden burst of bravery, Lotty approaches Rose and before long, they are planning to rent the castle.

But being women of modest means — Lotty will be spending a fair bit of her “nest egg” saved from being thrifty with a clothing allowance — they determine that the most sensible thing would be to place their own ad, soliciting two more ladies to join their party. And that is how Lady Caroline Dester, a socialite tired of people admiring her, and Mrs. Fisher, a window in her sixties who is very proper and very cranky, end up sharing San Salvatore with Lotty and Rose for a month. Lotty has the sense that a holiday will help them be happy, something she perceives they need because “You wouldn’t believe, how terribly good Rose and I have been for years without stopping, and how much we now need a perfect rest.”

The imperious Mrs. Fisher and the aloof and conceited Lady Caroline are no match for Lotty’s infectious ideas. When Rose is thinking of her author husband, who has been estranged, although amiably, from her for some time, Lotty tells her, “You mustn’t long in heaven . . . . You’re supposed to be quite complete there. And it is heaven, isn’t it, Rose? See how everything has been let in together — the dandelions and the irises, the vulgar and the superior, me and Mrs. Fisher — all welcome, all mixed up anyhow, and all so visibly happy and enjoying ourselves.” When rose protests that Mrs. Fisher isn’t happy, Lotty predicts she will be — that even Mrs. Fisher can’t resist being happy in such a place.

You won’t be able to resist this happy little novel either, which had me laughing out loud in places. Von Arnim entertains, but she also slips in some social criticism, including a little feminism. A perfect read for a rainy afternoon, or a sunny day with wisteria — or whatever is blooming near you — in sight.

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One of my book club friends mentioned Less was what she wanted to read next and it’s on several “best” of the year lists. Which I have a long history of quibbling with — I don’t like them because I feel like people should read whatever they like, which is not necessarily what critics like, but the former Teen the Elder convinced me to to stop judging and just have fun with them. Good advice. End of digression. Anyway, it was on the shelf at my library, and I hadn’t read Andrew Sean Greer‘s work before, so I decided to give it a try.

Less refers in part to Arthur Less, the hero of the story, whose former longtime lover, Freddy, is about to get married. Less decides to avoid the wedding by accepting a series of trips — some related to his work as a writer, some for pleasure — and string them together into a months long exodus from San Francisco, where he and Freddy live. He’ll venture from California to New York to interview a more famous author, to Mexico for a conference, Italy for a prize ceremony, Germany to teach a writing class, Paris on an unexpected layover, Morocco for a 50th birthday of the friend of a friend (Less will turn 50 there, too), then India for a writing retreat and Japan to write about kaiseki meals.

Less is a writer of lesser known novels, and in New York his agent tells him that his longtime publisher has rejected the most recent one. He’s also most well known for being the former partner of a Pulitzer prize winning poet. The reader begins to realize that this status as less-than is the defining characteristic of Arthus Less. Also he’s the type of person who bumbles into minor mishaps such as not being able to get into his German apartment, speaking foreign languages badly, losing his favorite suit to a tailor’s dog, getting locked in a room when a 400 year old door is stuck, and losing his luggage. Although really, who could travel that far without a bag being misrouted? He also bumbles into more pleasant surprises, which are so delightful I won’t spoil them for you here.

All of this endears Less to readers and to his friends. His story resonated with me in a way because I too faced that milestone birthday this year, and the wistfulness it can incite. My life hasn’t been as colorful or accomplished as Less’s but I get the feelings. Greer’s writing is beautiful and original without being overdone in that “look at me, I’m writing unconventional fiction” way that can be annoying. While the narrative is linear with a lot of passages looking back at earlier times in Less’s life, the narrator asserts himself as someone who knows Less, rather than as an impersonal third party, a little like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. But the narrator also turns out to be a character described in the third person throughout the novel as well, which is fun.

The language is fun too — describing Less trying a new outfit in Paris boutique, Greer writes, “He looks like a Fire Island supervillain rapper.”  There’s a wonderful passage where Less loses the “wedding” ring his famous author partner gave him (pre-marriage equality) in a bin of mushrooms and a group of other men think he’s going to be in trouble with his wife and try to help him find it. In Japan he sees “tourist buses parked in a row along the river their great side mirrors like the horns of caterpillars” from a rental car that “basically feels like an enameled toaster.” All the details of his travels are also delightful.

Less seems like a sad book, or at least a melancholy one, at first. But as you journey with Less things begin to look up and the ending is just lovely. It’s a book about a flawed human bumbling along but mostly doing fine. And even being happy here and there. A good read.

 

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This week in The Mindful Reader a terrific historical novel-police procedural by Lucretia Grindle. Here’s the beginning of the column, which ran in today’s New Hampshire Sunday News.

The Mindful Reader: Finding Italy in ‘The Lost Daughter’

Boston native Lucretia Grindle lives on the Maine coast as well as in England. In the afterword of her new novel, The Lost Daughter she explains that after 9/11, she and her husband talked about “what they would choose to do if the world were going to fly to pieces.” Grindle recalls saying, “I want to go to the Uffizi. If World War III is going to break out, let’s go to Florence.”

That decision turned out to be the first of many trips to Italy, which she calls “one of the most intellectually rich, vibrant, and contradictory countries in the world. . . .” Her extensive travel has inspired several novels.

“The Lost Daughter” is set in contemporary Florence and late 1960s-1970s Ferrara and Rome. It’s both a mystery and a historical novel, examining the years when Italy was in the grip of the Brigate Rosse, or Red Brigade, a militant leftist group. When the book opens, the story is focused on a 17-year-old American student, Kristin Carson, who’s studying art history in Florence and has a much older boyfriend she met online and knows only as Dante. When her prominent and well-connected orthopedic surgeon father and her stepmother fly to Italy for her 18th birthday, they learn she has disappeared.
You can read the rest here.

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