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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Tag

Neapolitan Novel Book 2   Leave a comment

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Italian novelist Elena Ferrante has hooked me with The Neapolitan Novels. Book Two, The Story of a New Name, picks up where My Brilliant Friend abruptly ended: at a wedding. The narrative moves forward while looking back to further develop the characters and plot line.

The friendship between Lila and Elena is based on the appreciation each has for the other’s intellect. However, due to family circumstances only Elena is given the opportunity to pursue a formal education. Lila studies independently. She is also newly married to the wealthy shopkeeper, but her volatile personality remains unchanged. She soon discovers, in her marriage, that her ability to get her way has more dire consequences than when she was younger.

Much of the beauty of Ferrante’s writing, translated by Ann Goldstein, lies in the vivid descriptions of the small town near Naples where much of the action takes place and of the characters she has created. Some are thoughtful, driven and kind, while others are impulsive and mean, some are smarter than others. None are one-dimensional.

After the wedding, Elena continues in high school where she excels as a student, despite some ups and downs. As the story progresses, life’s responsibilities take hold: military service, work and families. Elena’s education continues in Pisa. Lila has an affair with the young man who Elena has long been attracted to.

This may sound like a soap opera, but in Ferrante’s hands it is a moving story about choices, opportunities and testing the bonds of friendship.

The Story of a New Name
Four Bookmarks
Europa Editions, 2013
471 pages

 

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Friendship Italian Style   Leave a comment

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It’s a rare movie that’s better than a book, so I didn’t want to gamble by watching My Brilliant Friend before reading the first in Elena Ferrante’s series known as the Neapolitan Novels. Although initially slow moving, the book didn’t disappoint. After watching the first episode on HBO, I can attest that it closely, beautifully follows the story of friendship, love and life in the outskirts of Naples, Italy.

Narrated by Elena, the plot follows her ties with her friend Lila, their families and community. Elena is the “good” girl of the two. Lila is fearless, tough. Both are exceptionally bright, although Lila doesn’t expend as much energy and concern into feeding her intellect; hers is an innate intelligence.

Ferrante deftly describes the poverty, the over-crowding, the classroom, the apartment buildings, the local businesses and the people who inhabit them. The reader can feel the dust from the dirt streets and smell the imagined cooking that must be emanating from the Italian kitchens. (Scant attention is paid to food, so it’s an assumption that meals are prepared; it’s Italy, after all.)

The girls are competitive and caring. Like many friendships, it waxes and wanes. Yet, Elena knows no else is capable of such meaningful conversation and exchange of ideas as Lila. Elena pursues her education from elementary to middle school and finally high school, but her friend’s parents don’t allow their daughter to continue. Still, the girls remain intellectual equals.

Against this backdrop are subplots of honor, superstitions and long-held societal traditions.

My Brilliant Friend
Four Bookmarks
Europa, 2012
331 pages

Uncovering the Past   2 comments

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The Tuscan Child is a book that makes you hungry for Italy, especially its food. Rhys Bowen’s story alternates between two different time periods: 1944 and 1973.

The former recounts British pilot Hugo Langley’s efforts to survive after parachuting from his stricken plane over German-occupied Tuscany. The latter, and bulk of the novel, picks up with his daughter, Joanna, following Hugo’s death. She discovers an unopened letter addressed to Sophia in a small Tuscan village. The letter includes a reference to their “beautiful boy.” With little else to go on, Joanna travels to Italy learn more about Sophia and the boy, who could be her brother.

The chapters involving Hugo answer some of the mystery; others are left to Joanna to solve.

Sophia discovers the wounded pilot and helps keep in him hidden in a bombed-out monastery. She’s limited by scarce resources and the inability to leave home without raising suspicion among the townspeople and Germans. Although it is only a month, Hugo and Sophia fall in love.

Joanna is unable to learn anything about Sophia and none of the old timers in the village knew anything of a wounded pilot. Still, shortly after her arrival, one man suggests he has information for Joanna. Before he’s able to share anything, he’s murdered and Joanna becomes a suspect.

Bowen has crafted a double mystery: one involving the boy and the other the murderer. In the process of unearthing secrets, Joanna is treated to meals lovingly prepared by her guest house owner.

The Tuscan Child
Four Bookmarks
Lake Union Publishing, 2018
336 pages

Roman Pizza   Leave a comment

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Mani ai Pizzeria’s doors open at 6:30 p.m. We arrived just as a small line was forming. This is a no-frills pizza joint that serves great pies and entertains, at least we were entertained by the pizzamakers. There was neither tossing nor twirling of unbaked dough, but a calm, systematic approach to churning out 15 made-to-order pizzas at a time.

2017-02-23-19-57-11We shared a mixed salad, a liter of the house red and a Margarita pizza. That was our first order before we were mesmerized by the assembly-line process with a personal touch.

Pieces of dough are pulled from a large mound and formed into the size of tennis balls. These are rolled flat and stacked. Initially, there were two men making the pies. One rolled, creating a flurry of flour, one checked supplies and fed the wood-burning oven. The maestros then methodically cover some with sauce, most with cheese – a lot of cheese – and then the specific topics that included mounds of mushrooms, zucchini blossoms, raw sausage (it cooked in the oven), more cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. The marble slab looked like a carpet of pizzas.

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I wondered if the first ones in the oven would be the last out. This wasn’t the case. The guys know their stuff. The pizzas are served unsliced. The crust is thin and easily folds  in half. The ingredients are fresh and flavorful. We enjoyed ours so much we ordered a second just so we could keep watching — and eating!

 

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Pesto is the Best(o)   3 comments

 

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I’d been told many times that pesto made from basil grown in the Cinque Terre is especially good. The warm sun and coastal air make the licorice-flavored herb uniquely pungent. Basil is not a mild flavor, so I was intrigued by the idea of a different, perhaps stronger taste. I ate pesto several times over the course of three days to make sure.

Rest assured, it was very good, but I think the local olive oil may also be a contributing factor. Although, each dish I sampled allowed the rich green basilica to shine. The oil did not overpower, which can be the case with some versions.

We stayed in Riomaggiore where in late February it is still the low season. We found only two restaurants open. In nearby Manarola, there were more options, but not an overwhelming  number.

My pesto dinners were surprisingly different, albeit only slightly. One, at Pizzeria da Mam’angela, featured potatoes. Osteria Maite’s had pine nuts and was a darker green, but both were mixed with perfect al dente tagliolini, a linguini-like fresh pasta.

La Scogliera in Manarola offered several options for pesto, including lasagne, gnocchi and minestrone. I had the latter. The soup was rustic and hearty . The serving was just right for a late lunch.

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At home a large serving of pasta with pesto would suffice as a meal. One night I opted to eat as Italians do and had a primi plati and a secondi plati (grilled swordfish). It was a lot of food. The second evening  I had only pasta. Perfecto!

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The Confessions of Frances Godwin   Leave a comment

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Our youngest son recently graduated from Knox College; I’d been vaguely aware of it years before because of Sixteen Pleasures, a book I enjoyed for its setting (Florence, Italy) and strong female narrator. This same son gave me an autographed copy of Hellenga’s most recent work, The Confessions of Frances Godwin, which had been languishing on my nightstand far too long.

The setting is mostly Galesburg, Ill., with Knox figuring prominently; other locales include Milwaukee, Rome and Verona. With Frances, Hellenga introduces another female narrator. I admit I’m intrigued by his ability to create such true female voices.

It’s 2006 and Frances has retired from a career as a high school Latin teacher. At first, the novel appears to be a vehicle for her to reflect on her past because she soon recounts how she met her husband, Paul, a Shakespeare scholar from whom she took classes (at Knox). She tells of their affair, their eventual marriage and life together in Galesburg. They have a daughter, Stella, who as a grown woman appears to make a series of bad choices when it comes to men.

The story is occasionally heavy handed. Consider, Frances’ name: Godwin. Several times, she converses with God, who, among other things, entreats her to go to confession. By this point it’s clear that she does have more than a few things to own up to.

Love and guilt are not unusual companions; for Frances, they’re a large part of who she is.

The Confessions of Frances Godwin
Four Bookmarks
Bloomsbury, 2014
305 pages

A Technicolor Love Story   4 comments

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins is a cinematic novel. It’s easy to imagine this story playing on the silver screen. It spans years and continents, relies heavily on the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and features a strong connection to the movie industry. At its core, this is a love story, and a beautiful one at that.

Jess Walter’s tale involves a young actress, Dee, who arrives in an isolated Italian fishing village on the Ligurian Sea, where she meets Pasquale the owner of the Adequate View Hotel. Dee has been sent from Rome, where she had a bit part in the filming of Cleopatra. Dee is also pregnant with Burton’s child. Although it may sound like a blurb from People magazine, Walter imbues his narrative with deep feelings, humor, interesting characters and a clear passion for romance.

However, just when it seems the story will settle in the fishing village (the most interesting place) or even Los Angeles (because of the Hollywood scene), several miscellaneous locales are introduced: Seattle, London, Spokane, Florence, even Donner Pass in Northern California. Walter includes an assortment of characters, none of whom, surprisingly, are superfluous. Added, to this mix are different time periods: the early 1960s, the 1800s, and something more contemporary. The myriad of people, places and eras at first seems disparate, but they actually are essential what makes this such an engaging work.

Ruins are most often associated with architecture. Here Walter incorporates them into the erosion, but not extinction, of human emotions.

Beautiful Ruins
Four Bookmarks
Harper, 2012
337 pages