Dolce Bellezza

for literary and translated fiction

Don’t Move by Margaret Mazzantini

image

This is the second Premio Strega award-winning novel I have read in as many weeks. It will be tricky to review because it made me sad, and the first half was harder to work through than the other Italian books I read in one evening.

Part of the problem could be that the narrative comes to us from a man’s perspective, even though the novel is written by a woman. That shift is almost always hard for me to believe. How does she know what a male surgeon in oncology feels for an ugly woman with a high forehead? The portrayal of their love did not at first ring true to me, or perhaps I would feel it more authentic if we were to hear their story from the woman’s point of view instead of his.

Let me back up.

Don’t Move begins when a fifteen year old girl is suddenly struck by a car while riding her scooter to school. She is barely alive when she is rushed to the hospital, and it appears that she is suffering a brain hemorrhage. While the hospital staff is administering to her, a nurse discovers her name in a school notebook. This girl is the daughter of one of the chief surgeons. He is immediately summoned from an operation he is conducting, and while waiting for the outcome of her surgery, after phoning to inform her mother who has flown to England on business, he reviews his personal life which contains a deep secret.

Before his daughter was born, Timoteo began an affair with a woman whom he happened to see in a roadside bar when his car broke down on the way to his wife at their beach house. The woman wears too much make-up, is far too thin, has heels too high and a forehead too prominent. Yet rather than repulse Timoteo, he finds himself inescapably attracted to her. She is completely different from his educated and beautiful wife, who has a shapely figure and powerful career as a journalist.

The more we read of his lover, Italia, the more waif-like she seems. She was raped when she was twelve. She works any small job that she can find and lives in a small apartment with pathetic belongings scattered about; a poster of a monkey with a baby bottle, objects cluttering the surface of her dressers, a dog who is blind. Yet she is humble, eager to please him, and unwilling to believe that she is worthy of his love.

Through Timoteo’s attentions, though, she is drawn into their relationship with abandon. Her love for him becomes real, and tender, and heartbreaking because we sense deep down that in cannot last. It cannot compete against the place of his wife. Especially when she becomes pregnant.

And yet, unbelievably, their love does last. Timoteo knows he cannot leave his lover, knows that he must be by her side, even though he is a new father. He leaves his wife and newborn daughter in the maternity ward, and drives Italia south where he plans to set up a life with her.

Tragedy has a way of intervening. It sneaks in unannounced to those who are ill prepared, and robs us of our plans. Our dreams. What we have decided, futilely, that our future should be.

I wonder if all Italian novels are so visceral. Every one that I’ve read lately: Swimming to Elba, Quiet Chaos, I’m Not Scared, and now Don’t Move have been written with barely contained emotion telling stories of our deepest pain. They are powerful novels, a welcome respite from the Japanese who tend to portray a slice of life. Or, contain elements of magical realism which seem so at odds with the characters’ ordinary lives.

I’m continuing my foray into Italian literature with another Ammaniti novel, and a third Strega award winning novel titled The Solitude of Prime Numbers. I hope to have those finished by the time the IFFP long list is announced in March, for then it will be straight march ahead toward discovering whom we, the Shadow Jury, deem the winner. Until then, and probably after then, I cannot read enough Italian literature to appease this ravenous appetite.

 

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

image

A title which represents as much bravado as you might expect a nine year old Italian boy to have: I’m not scared. And while he might boldly declare he’s not afraid, the farther I read the more fearful I became. Because the subject of this book is not about ogres, or witches, or fanciful creatures. No, the fear comes from a much deeper place: the darkness and confusion of humankind.

Michele Amitrano and his friends are playing on a scorching day in the fields of their small, country town named Acqua Traverse. Inherent to the games a group of children may play, are the dares and the forfeits. “Let’s race to the top of this hill. Whoever is last has to do a forfeit.” Of course, fat Barbara is last. She can’t possibly compete in such a challenge and come out on top. Her forfeit, invented by Skull, involves taking down her pants from which Michele bravely saves her. But now he must accomplish the dare of crawling through the abandoned house behind the hill and coming out the window on the other side.

What he find inside the house is a dead boy. At least this is what he thinks. But when he comes back alone, the next day and the next, he keeps discovering something worse about what he has found in the hole of the house, a hole covered by corrugated fibre-glass and an old mattress, yet unable to conceal the truth inside.

Even though he promises his father, Michele cannot stay away. He is the one of unparalleled courage, he is the one with integrity, although he is only a child. A boy with limited power, defenseless against the very thing he calls home.

This is a shocking book, brief but unforgettable, illuminating a world of darkness that makes me thankful for the childhood that I had. That reminds me the things of our childhood stay with us forever.

Find more reviews here, here, and here.

Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi

image

In my passion for translated literature first, and prize winning works next, I have picked up several books by Italian authors (shockingly obtained at our sub par library). Quiet Chaos won the Strega, Italy’s top literary prize, several years ago. It is a novel of many layers, which centers around an unexpected grief that Pietro Paladini must face in his life.

The novel begins with tremendous momentum, as if we were surfing in the Mediterranean Sea with Pietro and his brother, Carlo, caught up in waves of exhilaration and danger, racing and dueling, and then suddenly saving two women who appear to be drowning. No one on shore is willing to risk their lives to go after these two women, but Carlo and Pietro are brave. They are daring. And they venture forth, each one toward a woman who is in peril.

When the women are brought safely to shore, no one takes any notice of their rescuers at all. They return home, exhausted and unacknowledged, and there Pietro finds that Lara, his soon-to-be-wife, and mother of their ten year old daughter, has suddenly died. While he was rescuing another woman, his own woman has fallen amidst the prosciutto and melon balls that she was carrying before she experienced a heart aneurysm.

How to cope with such a tragedy? Pietro tells his daughter, Claudia, that he will wait outside of her school all day until she is let out. We expect him to do this the first day, yes, because it would be a comfort to look out of the window of your classroom after you have suddenly lost your mother to see your father still there. But, we do not expect him to do this every day for months.

Pietro’s world now becomes his car, the neighborhood in which his daughter goes to school, and all the people who inhabit this area or purposely drive to see him. For he will not leave the safe microcosm he has created for his daughter, but ultimately for himself. Into this world come his sister-in-law, Marta, who accuses him of never loving Lara. Into this world come the big important men of his company, the world biggest telecommunications group, who are involved in an enormously important merger. Into this world comes a little boy named Matteo, with Down Syndrome, who makes a friend of Pietro’s car. And ultimately, the woman whom Pietro has saved from drowning finds him there.

The novel turns from ridiculously funny one moment, to despairing the next. At times I was smiling over misunderstandings, amusing anecdotes about co-workers, or the fabulous spaghetti dinner in which an old man who has been watching Pietro invites him to partake. Yet at others, I felt I had been punched because of the violence, the darkness, the despair that Pietro feels in his very core.

Quiet Chaos is about dealing with doubt, grief, being a parent, and ultimately finding the strength to carry on. It is a book I will be thinking about for a long time.

Miss Gloria was explaining reversibility to us.

Reversibility. I’m impressed. And how did she explain it to you?

She explained that in math there are some operations that are reversible and others that are irreversible. And then she explained that the same things happen in life. And it’s a lot better to do reversible things, if you have the choice.

I Seem to Have Lost My Place, Temporarily

When I began blogging in 2006 it was enough to have a voice. A voice that went beyond my journal’s pages or my husband’s ear. And not only did I have a voice, I had something viable to talk about: books.

You can’t imagine the pleasure there was in simply writing my thoughts about the literature I was reading, only to find someone responding with their thoughts. It was like a book club without having to dust, or prepare a dessert, or even agree on the same book to which everyone was obligated to read.

When I began the Japanese Literature Challenge eight years ago, over one hundred people signed up, and suddenly my reading world opened even wider. I was reading authors whose names had previously looked like a string of consonants all strung together, names which I now type without even needing to double check. Names which were gifts from fellow participants.

My evenings consisted of blogging. Writing posts. Redesigning my template. (Remember?!) Visiting old friends and making new. Finding a new comment on a post I’d written was thrilling, finding new friends with which to converse was better than talking to many of the friends I had in real life; they never seem to read much of anything but current best sellers.

The years passed…

I bought an iPad mini which gradually replaced my laptop. Only it doesn’t work as efficiently as a laptop, in terms of affording me ease with which to word process. I am fast with my thumbs, but not as fast as with all ten of my fingers. Leaving comments became arduous. Reading posts took time from reading books. Some of my favorite bloggers ceased blogging. New to me bloggers were so erudite I became intimidated. And slowly, I found myself withdrawing from a world which had become important to me.

Now I hardly know where I am. I tiptoe in and out of the blogging world, sometimes leaving a comment, most times not, and often feeling that I’ve lost my place. It’s been so very tempting, for the past six months, to give up blogging altogether.

But today I went through my blog list, reading posts and leaving many comments as I used to do, and in so doing I realized that I don’t want to abandon blogging about books. Not yet, anyway. I’d rather renew my place amidst this world, commenting with my laptop, carving out an hour each night from my reading time.

In fact, if there’s anything I’ll easily abandon, it’s my iPad.

The Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Dept. of Speculation

When I started reading this book, I thought she was neurotic. Now I understand that she is just blatantly honest, this mother, this wife, who tells us her story in bits and snippets as though we were reading her journal. Or, her mind.

They may seem disconnected, these stream of consciousness thoughts, but they are interwoven with quotes from poets and scientists, reporters and explorers, priests and Zen masters, to reveal a disconcerting vulnerability. I found my attention captured by this woman who begins by telling us the love she feels for her newly born daughter:

“The baby’s eye were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

and:

“My love for her seemed doomed, hopelessly unrequited. There should be songs for this, I thought, but if there were I didn’t know them.”

But then she segues into marriage, into the abyss of an affair she discovers her husband is having.

“There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same.”

and:

But my agent has a theory. She says every marriage is jerry-rigged. Even the ones that look reasonable from the outside are held together inside with chewing gum and wire and string.

So now this woman at the playground is telling me about how her husband rifles through her purse for receipts. If he finds one for the wrong kind of ATM, he posts it on the refrigerator, highlighted in red. She shrugs. “he can’t help it.”

What exactly am I waiting for her to say? That she married a fool? That her house is built on ashes? And here I am, the lucky one for once. Such blinding good fortune to have married him.

The wives have requirements too, of course. What they require is this: Unswerving obedience. Loyalty unto death. My husband sits in our kitchen and hand-sews a book. I hope that when it goes through the post office no machine will touch it.

and:

She remembers the first night she knew she loved him, the way the fear came rushing in. She laid her head on his chest and listened to his heart. One day this too will stop, she thought. The no, no, no of it. Why would you ruin my best thing?

and:

They used to send each other letters. The return address was always the same: Dept. of Speculation.

and:

The only love that feels like love is the doomed kind. (Fun fact).

and:

What Rilke said: I want to be with those who know secret things or else alone.

They whisper-fight, now. They hash out their issues in the Little Theater of Hurt Feelings. There seems to be no solution.

There are two women who are furious at him. To make one happy, he must take the subway across town and arrive on her doorstep. To make the other happy, he must wear for some infinitely long period of time a hair shirt woven out of her own hair.

Her writing is segmented enough to be fascinating, connected enough to be brilliant.

But, if it was me? The minute my love wants someone else, he is free to go. I would never, ever, make a place for him to stay, let alone demand it.

 

Mah Jongg: The Art of The Game by Ann M. Israel and Gregg Swain

When my husband teases me about retiring in a few years, he says, “Will you play Mah Jongg with the ladies all afternoon?” I haven’t attended a Mah Jongg club as of yet, but when I retire it would be fun to look for one nearby.

So far, the only things I know about the game are that it’s Chinese, from the middle of the 19th century, and has pieces so lovely I’d like to put them in my mouth. (This was part of the allure of dominoes, too, which I played endlessly with my grandmother. All those ivory pieces made such a satisfying click when they came together after leaving our hands…)

image

This beautiful book, Mah Jongg: The Art of The Game,  came to me from Tuttle Publishing with a note tucked inside from the author herself. And when I opened it, and read more about the game which already intrigued me, I knew I wanted a set of my very own.

There are twelve chapters, beginning with “A Brief History of Mah Jongg” and continuing on through different kinds of materials from which this game is made: paper, bamboo, wood, Bakelite, French ivory, metals, rubber, bone bamboo and precious materials. It also has a chapter on “The Art of The Box”, and the effect Mah Jongg still has on people today.

image

image image image image image image image image image image image image image

You can see from the beautiful photographs alone how fascinating this game can be, and how even a few lost pieces can make an engaging display of their own. Especially if one still needs to acquire the finer points of the game and can be content to simply turn the pages of its history.

One Night In Winter by Simon Sebag Montefiore

IMG_0560

A select group of children at School 801, in Moscow, have formed a Fatal Romantics Club based on the writings of Pushkin and what they have learned about him from their beloved teacher, Benya Golden. But, Nikolasha Blagov and Rosa Shako are killed in a duel during their Game, one which re-enacts the duel from Pushkin’s Onegin, or the death of Pushkin himself. These 18 year old students, during the regime of Joseph Stalin, face almost intolerable questioning as the truth is searched out. While they think they are playing a romantic game, to put passion above science, the officials believe they are in a conspiracy to “overthrow the Soviet Government, kill members of the Politburo, and install a new ministry.” It is just the kind of paranoid overreaction one has heard about during the time of the Bolsheviks, and it is truly terrifying to think of being at the hand of such irrational inquisitors.

This novel, based on true incidents from 1945, shows us not only the Children’s Case as described above, but other complicated relationships which suffered at the hand of Comrade Stalin and his staff. Most significant to me was the love between Marshal Hercules Satinov and the lovely Doctor Dorov. While both were married, and stayed that way, their love was undeniable and all the more tender because it had no place to go.

…not a soul knew about it and…probably no one would ever know. He was leading a double life: no one was undisguised, plain for all to see and known to everyone who needed to know, full of conventional truths and conventional deception, identical to the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and by another which went on in secret. And by some strange, possibly fortuitous chain of circumstances, everything that was important, interesting and necessary for him, where he behaved sincerely and did not deceive himself and which was the very essence of his life – that was conducted in complete secrecy. ~Chekhov, “The Lady With The Little Dog”

It’s to enough to make me want to get my old Russian Lit books out, to reread Pushkin and Chekhov and Tolstoy, burying myself in the works which have always fascinated me for the ideas and the lives they portray.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

image

Yesterday was a day of great celebration in my classroom. Cookies, heart shaped boxes of Ghiradelli chocolates, bags of m & m’s, and psychedelic cards were in abundance to the point of excess. I closed the day feeling a little sick.

Yet just the right valentine, from just the right person, gives a perfect lift. How grateful I am for the one above, tucked into my hand at the end of a day spent at the hospital, in my mother’s perfect writing. It is simple. It is elegant. It is lovely, just as she is.

I’m not one for soppy poems, for extravagant bouquets, for mounds of rich chocolate. I resent the “obligation” flowers and sweets I see stacked at the check-out lines of grocery stores. Far better, I think, is the heartfelt note all by itself.

There was a year, several in fact, when I had lost my first husband and faced Valentine’s Day feeling worse than dreadful. It seemed everywhere I turned, I saw couples holding hands, couples kissing, advertisements for diamond jewelry in heart shapes. Those things are extra piercing when we are alone. Some years are like that.

But joy comes in the morning. A new day will come, a day when in giving love away, we receive it back. Love is circular like that. I find it has a way of going around, sometimes pulling away from me, sometimes drawing near.

And so a note for you, dear blogging friends: wherever you are today, may you find an element of love in some measure. Whether it’s from a person, a pet, or even a favorite book, I hope you rest in the warmth of something you love.

xoxo

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

IMG_0559

There’s something about Anne Tyler’s books which is like sitting down to Sunday dinner. They are warm, and comforting, and resonant of home even if the home doesn’t exactly resemble one’s own. Within the pages I quickly become lost into the mood she spins: often quirky, often mellow, always tender. The significance of the plot begins to melt away as I absorb the characters’ lives and wonder how it is that they seem to express exactly what I feel.

We may remember The Accidental Tourist. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Back When We Were Grownups. Or, my personal favorite, Breathing Lessons, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. So with eager anticipation I read A Spool of Blue Thread, published just two days ago on February 10, 2015.

The novel opens with Denny, a young man in whom I could easily envision my brother. Or, my son. He hangs up the phone after delivering astonishing news, leaving his parent wondering yet again where this trouble might lead, and just when it is, exactly, that they might hear from him again. The whole first part is dedicated to the actions of unreliable Denny, unwilling-to-answer-for-anything Denny, and I am half assuaged that there is another person who brought to his parents the discomfort my own son has sometimes created for me. Even if this person is fictional.

Then abruptly, we open Part 2 to read the history of Denny’s paternal grandparents. We learn the background story of the Whitshank family, how they brought themselves up through sheer determination and hard work from the Depression to owning the home that Denny’s grandfather longed for from the moment he set his eyes on it.

And all along the way, I am entranced by Abby, Denny’s mother. She is so loving, so warm, so outgoing, that she thinks nothing of inviting the “orphans” to dinner; those who are lonely, or newly arrived to America, or somehow struggling to find their way. This drives her children crazy. They don’t understand her, they are embarrassed by her, and all the time I’m thinking, “I wish that was that generous of spirit, in action not just word.”

I am connected to these characters. I feel I could be one of Abby and Red’s children, fumbling around with Stem, Jeannie, Amanda and Denny as they go to the family beach vacation, or sit around the dinner table reminiscing over their childhood, or wondering what to do as their parents’ fragility becomes an issue that must be resolved. Abby is forgetful, like there’s a hitch in time she explains. Red is hard of hearing, misunderstanding conversations or staying out of them altogether. When Stem, the eldest, and his wife and children move in to take care of the aging couple, no one is more surprised than I, that Denny comes too, demanding why he wasn’t asked first to be the care-taker.

For ultimately, family is family. The thread that ties us together cannot be broken. It may be fragile. It may be thin. But it comes from a spool that represents history, a specific history of events and imperfect love that is the foundation of every family.

Thank you to Random House for this novel which I read in only a few days, a novel that is beautiful to its very last page, written as only Anne Tyler could do.

 

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

image

But even before she’d got the cigarette lit, she closed her eyes, leaned back into her pillow–and suddenly she found herself in an unfamiliar house with crumbling walls. How had she got there? She had no idea. She knew only that she had to keep the place from collapsing. But the task was like torture. The moment she got one wall upright, the next would start to tilt; soon she was rushing from room to room, propping up sagging ceilings, hauling back the slithering treads of tumbling staircases. On and on she went, through all the hours of the night; on and on, without pause, staving off one impossible catastrophe after another. p. 383

The paying guests is a term for lodgers, those who come to rent a home from a landlord. But it’s an ironic term in this case, because Lilian and Leonard Barber will pay in many ways for coming to the home of Miss Wray and her mother. At first I suspected a story resembling Arsenic and Old Lace. “They’ll be poisoned,” I thought, “this unsuspecting couple coming to a perfectly presentable house.”

But there are many ways to be poisoned besides arsenic.

How about love as a deadly poison? Could we substitute the fallout of a scandalous love affair for a fatal draught?

Delicious tensions abound in this novel, between husband and wife, mother and daughter, lover and lover, police and the accused. There is an underlying assumption, that Mrs. Barber’s dalliance could only ever involve a male. How shocking in the 1920’s, how virtually unknown, the fact that lesbian relationship exist.

It wasn’t what I expected, to read of a love affair between two women. It wasn’t even something I enjoyed, compared to the shivers I got while reading The Little Stranger. But if a novel reflects the writer’s soul, it would be unfair to expect something different than a lesbian theme from Sarah Waters.

I wondered if the two women in The Paying Guests would destroy each other as the deed they committed in secret threatened to expose more than their romance. And while their story vacillated between clinging to each other and separating, between innocence and guilt, I compulsively turned the pages to learn of its conclusion.

For what does all of Miss Wray’s cleaning mean? The day in, day out tasks of polishing the floor on her hands and knees, drawing water from a rumbling heater for baths and clearing up, dusting knick-knacks in the parlour while her mother naps? She will be forever scrubbing, but never spotless.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 747 other followers