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In The Beginning Was The Sea by Tomas Gonzalez

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There is an ominous, and delicious, aura of fear right from the start of this novel. You can instantly sense that things are going to go wrong, you just don’t know when, much like the feeling you get when watching an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Rather than being annoying, the obvious foreshadowing exacerbates the tension. Sentences like this, “Even later, after they had replaced the water tank and the pipe and there was running water in the bathroom, J. went on bathing in the crystalline stream until the end,” begin early on and continue throughout the novel.

J. and his girlfriend Elena have come to a remote finca (country estate) where they plan to live in the remote and beautiful environment of Colombia.  It takes four and a half hours by boat to arrive at their destination from the nearest town. Once they arrive, problem after problem slowly emerges.

Their house is filthy, and apart from the kitchen, basically unusable until Elena clears out the rubbish and scrubs its entirety. Their money, entrusted to J.’s unreliable relative, is gone when he declares bankruptcy. The wares for the store they set up arrive considerably short of what they’d ordered. And over all this potential disaster is the unremitting presence of alcohol, aguardiente, a distilled liquor made in South America from sugar cane.

Forced to consider cutting down the trees on his land for timber to sell, J. writes in his journal, “I’ll be forced to practice the Ancient Art of Axmanship, as the local poets call it. Make way for civilization, you puny fucking kapoks!” This defiance, even though he knows they are far from puny trees.

In the beginning was…it would only make sense, biblically, that the next thing to follow would be “be fruitful and multiply.” But this is the very thing that J. is unable to do. His cattle die, his timber falls, his relationship with Elena fails.  He has the opposite of the Midas touch for nothing turns to gold. Nothing prospers.

How ironic that the novel ends with a scene we encountered early on in the novel. It is the scene of a cemetery, perhaps the most peaceful place in all the book, the place that seemed the least sinister to J.

Based on the true story about the author’s brother, In the Beginning Was the Sea is the third book I have read for the IFFP this year. The writing is spare and elegant, bringing both time and place into bas relief. It is a novel I enjoyed very much and will think about for a long time.

Find another review at A Little Blog Of Books, and 1stReading’s Blog.

F: a novel by Daniel Kehlmann

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F is for finesse. F is for fake. F is for father who’s absent. F is for frantically running from the life you’ve made and F is for fraudulent. For nobody in this book is who he pretends to be.

Arthur is the father, who wants to be a writer, and suddenly leaves his three young sons after taking them to a hypnotist one evening. He claims hypnotism has no effect on him, but it seems to be one of the many lies the characters wrap themselves up within.

Martin, the eldest, becomes a fat priest who doesn’t believe God exists. He spends his time perfecting his skills with a Rubiks Cube as if the championship ahead is the most worthy goal of his life.

Ivan becomes an art forger with his lover, Heinrich.

And Eric, Ivan’s twin, becomes a financial consultant who completely mismanages the enormous funds of extremely wealthy clients. He lies to his clients, he lies to his wife, he lies to his daughter, his girlfriend and most significantly to himself. He cannot face what is his fault.

Their lives are a parody of what it means to be successful, which is something they each search for but cannot attain.

“Truth,” he (Ivan) said, “that’s all well and good. But sometimes none of it gets you anywhere. Always ask what people are expecting of you. Say what people say, do what people do. Ask yourself who exactly you’d like to be. Then ask yourself what that person you’d like to be would do. Then do it.”

This is wisdom for “getting somewhere”? It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Finally, F is for fate. F is for the future. And perhaps for some of us, F is for faith.

 

Daniel KehlmannDaniel Kehlmann was born in Munich in 1975 and lives in Berlin and New York. His works have won the Candide prize, the Doderer prize, the Kleist Prize, the Welt Literature Prize, and the Thomas Mann Prize. Measuring the World was translated into more than forty languages and is one of the greatest successes in postwar German literature.

 

 

F a novel, is the second book I’ve read for the IFFP long list. Find other reviews from the Shadow Jury at 1stReading’s Blog, David’s Book World, Messengers Booker, and roughghosts.

Mailbox Monday

Into my mailbox this month have come untold riches. And while I am consumed with reading as much of the long list for the IFFP as I can before April 9, I have these books to look forward to and share with you:

First, from SoHo Press comes Innocence by Heda Margolius Kovaly. It is translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker and will be published this June.

1950s Prague is a city of numerous small terrors, of political tyranny, corruption and surveillance. There is no way of knowing whether one’s neighbor is spying for the government or what one’s supposed friends will say under pressure to a state security agent. A loyal Party member might be imprisoned or executed as quickly as a traitor; innocence means nothing for a person caught in a trap.

But there are larger terrors, too. When a little boy is murdered at the cinema where his aunt works, the ensuing investigation sheds a little too much light on the personal lives of the cinema’s female ushers, each of whom is hiding a dark or haunting secret of her own.

Richard Russo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, says of Small Merices by Eddie Joyce:

Eddie Joyce’s terrific first novel is so American that the story might as well have taken place at the base of the Statue of Liberty. His Amendola family and their beloved Staten Island may be flawed, but they represent what’s best and most necessary in the American character, what our tired and poor still year for.

Paula McLain, bestselling author of The Paris Wife, says that The Tutor is “A sumptuous, page-turning account…I was completely captivated.”

Finally, the piece de resistance, a newly released translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.

…Les Miserables has been a popular phenomenon since it was first published in 1862–most recently, award-winning screen and stage adaptations have held captive audiences world-wide. This year, Penguin Classics presents a deluxe edition of Christine Donougher’s compelling, contemporary new translation of the novel (the first new Penguin Classics translation in forty years), which highlights not only its emotional resonance and social observation, but also its quick wit and rich historical texture.

Have you received some books you’re anxious to read? Do any of these especially appeal to you? Looking forward to hearing about your mailboxes!

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (A Spectacular Way to Begin the IFFP Long List)

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Several years ago, I was only able to read one book for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It was The Detourby Gerbrand Bakker, and I was not surprised to find that it was named the winner in May, 2013. That is how I feel about The End of Days, a book which is written with such tender and insightful prose it nearly takes your breath.

This novel is many things. The fly-leaf says, “A novel of incredible breadth and amazing concision, and the winner of the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize, The End of Days offers a unique overview of the twentieth century by “one of the finest, most exciting authors alive” (Michel Faber). And while it certainly is a portrayal of Germany’s history from 1900 through the next hundred years, it is so much more.

None of the characters are named. They are simply the baby, the oldest daughter, the mother, the grandmother. Yet we are able to understand who is who as the characters are woven together through five books, in between which comes an Intermezzo.

Each of the five books supposes a different scenario with the female protagonist. (Done far more brilliantly than Kate Atkinson’s work in Life After Life.) First, there is the baby who dies an infant.  In Book II, the author imagines that the baby had lived and is now seventeen years old living in Vienna. In Book III, the girl is a woman in her thirties who has entered the Soviet Union and lives in Moscow. In Book IV, the woman is in her 60’s and living in Berlin. The novel ends with Book V, when the woman is 90 and visited by her son in the nursing home where she is cared for. Through each of these scenarios, we see the impact that history has made particularly on the Jewish people, the Germans, and the Russians. But the scope is much larger than that. We see the impact of life on humankind.

I could not stop highlighting certain passages:

  • The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more.
  • For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.
  • The end of a day on which a life has ended is still far from being the end of days.
  • Does it make a difference to someone who doesn’t know the truth whether the person is dead or just very far away?
  • On Wednesday, for the first time in her life, she met people who didn’t just grumble about how awful everything was, but instead clearheadedly investigated  why this machine known as progress kept undermining the well-being of mankind.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. She is the author of several works of fiction, including The Book of Words (2007) and Visitation (2010), both translated by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. Also an opera director, she currently lives in Berlin.

The End of Days is a book which I strongly suspect may win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It is a book which, in my opinon, must be read.

 

Find reviews from roughghosts here, 1st Reading’s Blog here, and Tony’s Reading List here.

The Boy Who Loved Rain

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I didn’t realize I had accepted the review of a book written by a pastor, poet and missionary who lives in Normandy, France. But opening  the book to find an epigraph written by Paul Tournier, and finding passages of text pertaining to faith, made me glad I had.

Fiona and David’s fourteen year old son is at the heart of this story about family. He vacillates between temper and apathy; he stays up late into the night and sleeps until noon the next day. He has trouble at school getting along with others, and his parents are often called in to speak to the administration. He wakes in the night with horrific nightmares about trying to save a sister he doesn’t have, a scenario in which he can find no sense. He has hidden a suicide pledge, sealed with a bloody thumbprint, behind a painting in his room. Something is terribly wrong.

His mother, in utter desperation, flees London to a little coastal town in Brittany named Portivy, on the peninsula of Quiberon. Her friend Miriam lives there, and with her wisdom Colom’s story is slowly revealed. It is the first time he is fully aware of his past, for his childhood was a darkly shadowed one; a childhood his parents thought best to leave undisclosed.

But when have secrets ever been helpful? When truth lies hidden, pain has the time it needs to grow until a near Herculean effort is required to vanquish it. This effort is what is required from both of Colom’s parents as they face their past and what they have left untold to their beloved son.

I was moved to discover that author Gerard Kelly uses the story of Jairus in the New Testament to address Colom’s situation in his novel. When he sees Jairus’ utter despair at the apparent death of his daughter, Jesus comes to bring her to life again. Miriam reminds Fiona that Jesus sends all of the adults out of the room and focuses on the daughter alone.

“An adolescent in crisis is always a family in crisis,” Miriam continued, “but adolescence is about identity; about becoming an individual. My thesis suggested that healing can’t begin until we acknowledge the child as the subject of their own story: the actor in their own journey. The adults who have held the child as the object in their story must let go. It’s the whisper of identity they’re waiting for. Life, spoken into them again.” (p. 223)

Can anything be harder than being a parent? In the best of situations, it requires endless patience, forgiveness, and hope. It requires taking the focus off of one’s self and letting the “child” stand on his own. My son is 24, and I’m still practicing this every day.

Other important things that Kelly includes in his novel are:

  • John Tavener’s  Ikon of Light, a beautiful piece of sacred music
  • a reference to a 300 year old text written by Jean-Pierre de Caussade (quite possibly from The Sacrament of The Present Moment: “The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds. The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which only the heart fathoms insofar as it overflows with faith, trust and love.”)
  • a painting by Kandinsky named Farbstudie Quadrate
  • a quote pertaining to rain which precedes each chapter, from sources that include Garth Stein’s Racing in The Rain, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and Elie Wiesel’s Dawn.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read this book, to reflect on parenting, and childhood, and the necessity of truth under any circumstance. Thank you to Gerard Kelly for reminding us that uncovered secrets and forgiveness are the tools we need for healing. He blogs at godseesdiamonds.tumblr.com and is the founder of the twitter prayer stream @twitturgies.

A Dangerous Place by Jacqueline Winspear

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Although Maisie Dobbs has been around for many years, I have not been introduced to her until this book which is twelfth in the series. I can’t say that I regret not meeting her until now.

Like Miss Marple, she is a perfectly lovely woman. Polite, adventurous, good at drinking tea and solving crimes. But my goodness, the plot took forever to get going, and in my opinion never did get quite off the ground in the way that I had hoped.

While coming home to Southampton from India, after suffering both the loss of her husband and her baby, Maisie decides to stay awhile in Gibralter. There, she just happens to stumble across the body of Sebastian Babayoff lying on the ground with his Leica camera under a nearby bush.

From there we are introduced, quite painstakingly, to practically every character in the town: Mrs. Bishop who runs the boarding house in which Maisie stays; Mr. Solomon who runs the haberdashery shop; Mr. Salazar who serves her coffee and a pastry each morning at his coffee shop; Arturo Kenyon  who trails her unconvincingly; and just coincidentally, all the other people who could possibly be involved in the murder of Sebastian, the photographer.

Whom I never cared enough about to wonder who would murder him, let alone why.

The whole story seemed conveniently put together for the author’s purpose, the mourning of Maisie became tedious after the first third of the book, and the characters lay stubbornly dormant rather than waking to impress me.

If you are one of the readers who likes Maisie Dobbs, I’m sure this latest novel in her explorations will amuse you. If you haven’t read her yet, I don’t recommend starting now.

An Introduction to The Poser by Jacob Rubin (And Give-away)

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Accented with vaudevillian flair, The Poser is set in an imaginary country that resembles America of the 1950s and 1960s. A small eastern seaside town is where we meet Giovanni Bernini–a man who possesses the uncanny gift to instantly mimic anyone he meets. As he describes it, “No one disguise is perfect. There is in every person, no matter how graceful, a scam, a thread curling out of them…When pulled by the right hands, it will unravel the person entire.” Honed by his theatrical mother at a young age, his talent eventually takes him from his hometown to the nightclubs of the City and eventually the sound stages of Fantasma Falls, the glamorous, west coast city similar to Hollywood. As Giovanni’s fame grows, he encounters a cast of provocative characters–including an exuberant manager, a mysterious chanteuse, an enigmatic psychoanalyst, and a deaf obsessive compulsive–and becomes increasingly trapped inside many personas. When his bizarre talent comes to define him Giovanni is forced to assume the one identity he has never been able to master: his own. ~Viking Press

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Finally! The Long List for the IFFP 2015 is Here!

 

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I feel I have been waiting forever, at least as long as it takes for the latest Haruki Murakami book to come to the States, for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize long list to be revealed for 2015. The Shadow Jury, organized by Chairman Stu, has been holding its breath all day for this announcement, for we will be eagerly reading each book to determine which one we feel should be the winner.

The list is as follows:

bloodlines
Bloodlines by Marcello Fois  (translated from Italian)
Translated by Silvester Mazarella

Boyhood Island

Boyhood Island by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated from Norwegian)
Translated by Don Bartlett

By Night The

By Night The Mountain Burns by Juan Tomas Avila Laurel (translated from Spanish)
Translated by Jethro Soutar

Colorless

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami (translated from Japanese)
Translated by Philip Gabriel

F
F by Philip Kellerman (translated from German)
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

in-the-beginning-was-the-sea-cover
In The Beginning Was The Sea by Tomas Gonzalez (translated from Spanish)
Translated by Frank Wynne

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Look Who’s Back by Vernes Timur (translated from German)
Translated by Jamie Bulloch

thedeadlake_jacket-image
The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (translated from Russian)
Translated by Andrew Bromfield

end-of-days
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated from German)
Translated by Susan Bernofsky

the-giraffe-s-neck (1)
The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky (translated from German)
Translated by Shaun Whiteside

The Investigation
The Investigation by J.M. Lee (translated from Korean)
Translated by Chi-Young Kim

The Last Lover
The Last Lover by Can Xue (translated from Chinese)
Translated by Annelise Finegan

The Ravens
The Ravens by Tomas Bannerhed (translated from Swedish)
Translated by Sarah Death

Tiger Milk
Tiger Milk by Stefanie De Velasco (translated from German)
Translated by Tim Mohr

While The Gods Were Sleeping
While The Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier (translated from Dutch)
Translated by Paul Vincent

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 will honour the best work of fiction by a living author that has been translated into English from any other language and published in the United Kingdom in 2014.

The deadline for publishers to submit entries was Tuesday 16 September. The 2015 judging panel, which will be announced in due course, will select a longlist of approximately 15 titles, a shortlist of six and one winner. Uniquely, the Prize gives the winning author and translator equal status: each receives £5,000.

Stay up-to-date with the Prize on Twitter@Booktrust and #IFFP.

~Booktrust

The members of the Shadow Jury with whom I will be reading are listed on the sidebar of my blog. We will keep you informed as to our opinions of each title, and which we feel are the most significant. Off to my library now, to see which two books they have before I order the rest online.

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

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“Sumptuously sensual, crammed with gusto, vitality, spectacle, and invention, The Great Beauty (2013) is also a cautionary tale about the heedless pursuit of pleasure. Director Paolo Sorrentino pulls out all the stops visually, layering one stunning, eye-opening image onto another. But for all this, the film is also, paradoxically, austere and rigorous.” ~Phillip Lopate, Columbia University

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Here is Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo, the writer who is at the center of the film. He narrates bits of his life, his surroundings, the details of Rome and its privileged crowd’s existence, beginning with his sixty-fifth birthday celebration.

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But scenes change quickly from one to another, much as the mood of the film swings from somber to exuberant. Unexpectedly, we are thrust into an outdoor theater where a naked woman runs full force into a brick wall which makes the audience gasp; but, not turn away. This, for them, is entertainment.

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As Jeb contemplates his life he is less likely to be moved sexually as he is in his search for answers. Why did Elisa leave him in 1970? He never finds out, any more than he finds an answer to spiritual questions from a cardinal who leaves Jeb standing there while he goes off hunting for skunk.

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Although the film had many strange scenes, such as this child creating a work of art before a crowd of spectators, while crying because she is forced to do so, it was at the same time compelling. The shots of Rome were spectacular, the depiction of the people remarkable in the way that their very existence was so frivolous. From Botox parties, to all night drinking…

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to a conga line which never ends, I was struck as I always am by the ridiculousness of the masses.

 

My favorite scenes, my favorite lines, came from the character Sister Maria. A representation of Sister Theresa, at 104 years of age, she is asked why she won’t let them interview her in a book.

“I took a vow of poverty. And you don’t talk about poverty. You live it,” she says very quietly through broken and greying teeth.

And later, when Jeb is standing on a balcony watching migrating flamingos who are resting there, she turns to ask him, “Do you know why I only eat roots?”

“No,” he replies.

“Because roots are important.”

But it seems to me that Jeb has shallow roots, or none at all. He is lost and conflicted through much of the film, until finally he accepts what he cannot change and says, “What lies beyond is not my concern. Therefore, let the novel begin.”

A final point: the music from the film was as good as the cinematography for me. Just as the film’s scenes moved from the sacred to the profane, the music went from a disco beat to an angelic choir.

Music from the film:

My Heart’s in the Highlands (Arvo Pärt) – Else Torp and Christopher Bowers-Broadbent 
Time, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
The Beatitudes (Vladimir Martynov) – The Kronos Quartet 
Dies irae from Requiem for My Friend (Zbigniew Preisner) 
The Lamb (John Tavener) – The Temple Church Choir 
Symphony in C Major: II. Adagio (Georges Bizet) – The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra 
River Flows, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Symphony no. 3: III. Lento (Henryk Górecki) – The London Symphony Orchestra w/ Dawn Upshaw 
Beata viscera (Magister Perotinus) – Vox Clamantis
Far l’amore (Club Mix) – Bob Sinclar and Raffaella Carrà 
More Than Scarlet – Decoder Ring 
Take My Breath Away – Gui Boratto 
Brain Waves, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Everything Trying – Damien Jurado 
Parade – Tape 
Color My World, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Forever – Antonello Venditti 
Surge of Excitement, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Water from the Same Source – Rachel’s 
Settembre non comincia, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Ti ruberò – Monica Cetti 
Trumeau, from the score by Lele Marchitelli 
Que no se acabe el mambo – La Banda Gorda 
We No Speak Americano – Studio Allstars 
Discoteca – Exchpoptrue 
Mueve la colita (2012 Remix) – El Gato DJ 
Ramona, from the score by Lele Marchitelli

La Grande Bellezza won Best Foreign Language Film of the Year from the Academy Awards in 2014, and Best Foreign Language Film from the Golden Globes in 2014, among many other nominations and awards from countries worldwide. I thank Scott of seraillon for bringing it to my attention.

Don’t Move by Margaret Mazzantini

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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.