Nonfiction Worth Reading: Living in Italy – The Real Deal, by Stef Smulders

Living in Italy: the Real Deal - How to survive the good life

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy, one of the world’s most beautiful places, is admired for many things – La Dolce Vita, pasta, wonderful wines, passionate people, and wonderful art. There is one particular institution, however, that is deeply puzzling to most non-Italians – its governmental bureaucracy. In Living in Italy, Stef Smulders relates the story of how he and his husband, Nico, relocated from the Netherlands to Lombardy to start a B&B. The grandfather of books like this is, of course, Peter Mayle’s bestseller A Year in Provence, published in the 70’s, and in 1996, Frances Mayes had similar success with Under the Tuscan Sun. Ex-pat narratives by now form a large genre of their own, and Living in Italy by Stef Smulders is a worthy addition to the category.

In 1998, Stef and his husband Nico moved to Lombardy from their native Netherlands to start a B&B. Being members of a very organized society, they arrived at their new home in Montecalvo with the assumption that the renovation of their new house would proceed efficiently. By the end of their first week, their belief in Murphy’s Law was firmly cemented. Living in Italy is a delightful series of vignettes, written with wry humor and an unpretentious air of befuddlement. How could all these snafus keep happening? It probably takes an Italian to understand. But for a year, Stef and Nico survived within the confines of their kitchen, surrounded by the noise, dirt, and chaos racket being carried out by a crews of artisans whose work ethic is decidedly, shall we say, casual. Forays into the intricacies of obtaining official documents and licenses (coda fiscale) are equally nerve wracking. Read these chapters and you feel as though you’ve personally known estate agent Olito, architectural engineer Cassini, and builder Torti. But Stef also writes engagingly about the local culture, on such topics as wine tasting, using public toilets, cooking lessons, and exploring the hardware store.

All’s well that ends well, and after a harrowing swimming pool installation, Nico and Stef are finally ready open the doors to Villa I Due Patroni. One of the pleasures of reading about their experiences, one that was not available for Provence or Tuscany, is visiting the property’s website to see the results of all their struggles. If I ever travel to Lombardy, that’s where I want to stay.

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Historical Fiction: The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the Ruins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1943, Florence. The Nazis are losing their grip on Italy, and the invasion of the Allies is immanent. The aristocratic Rosati family, led by patriarch Antonio, have two sons in the Italian army, and are hoping that the winds of war will pass peacefully over their estate, the Villa Chimera. But as the Nazis gear up for the invasion, they commandeer the villa and surrounding property, and much to the chagrin of the Rosati sons, their father takes the path of least resistance. No one is pleased when 18 year old Christina falls hard for one of the German lieutenants.

1955, Florence. The brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, a war widow who also lost her children, takes place, during which her throat is cut and her heart torn from her body. Only a few days later, her mother in law becomes a victim, her heart left in a box for the tourists to find on the Ponte Vecchio. The case is assigned to Investigator Serafina Bettine, who served as a partisan in the war and nearly died from severe burns during the final stand at Villa Chimera. From this point forward, The Light in the Ruins alternates between the two time periods, as Serafina attempts to track down and identify the serial killer.

There is much to be admired in this novel, in its evocation of times past, of the idyllic Italian countryside, and in its depiction of the brutality and horrors of wartime. Its characters are finely drawn, especially those of Serafina, Christina, and the German commander, Decher. All of the characters struggle over painful moral dilemmas; should Antonio be accommodating the Nazi occupiers? Should Italian art treasures be shipped off the Germany without resistance? What role should civilians play, or pay, in wartime? It is in the plotting of what is essentially a murder mystery that the book fails to deliver. What ought to be a gripping serial killer investigation falls short in the suspense department, even though it’s difficult to guess who the perpetrator might be.

At its best, the work of Chris Bojalian is mesmerizing, and in sections, The Light in the Ruins lives up to that standard. As a mystery, however, it is far from compelling.

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Paranormal Fiction: Inamorata, by Megan Chance

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Megan Chance creates a twist on the currently popular vampire theme in Inamorata. Struggling American artist Joseph Hannigan and twin sister Sophie travel to Venice, where they hope to find a patron interested in supporting  and championing his work. Everyone who sees it thinks it’s quite extraordinary, and are equally entranced by the beauty and inter-connectedness of the twins. At the same time,  failed poet Nicholas Dane has arrived, bent on tracing the whereabouts of Odile Leon, the enchanting seductress who left him deep in despair. Odile, it seems, possesses the powers of a muse, and while her amorous conquests produce beautiful work during their relationship, the men lose their inspiration when they part. As the Hannigans penetrate the inner circle of artists and patrons, young men begin to die in suspicious circumstances, and Nicholas suspects that Odile may be involved. The Venice of this novel, set in the late 19th century, is a dark, labyrinthine one, damp and menacing. Its plot revolves on the myth of the succubus, a creature with the upper body of an irresistible woman and the lower body of a serpent. Succubi leach away the creativity and life force from their lovers, in order to maintain their immortality. Slowly paced,the story unfolds in a fairly predictable way, but the ending brings about an unforeseen set of circumstances. It also leaves unresolved a question about the true nature of the twins’ relationship.

Considering the topic, Inamorata elicits less a sense of horror than one of desolation.

Thriller: The English Girl, by Daniel Silva

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  My rating:     5 of 5 stars

The English Girl is author Silva’s thirteenth novel featuring Gabriel Allon, the brilliant, honorable, and ruthless Israeli intelligence operative. The book opens with a summons from number 10 Downing Street. The PM has been conducting a secret affair with Madeline Hart, a political aide who was just kidnapped while on holiday in Corsica. Hoping to keep this potential scandal from the press, the Brits are calling in a favor, asking Allon to find and rescue Madeline.  Reluctantly, and against his better judgment, he agrees.  What follows is a kind of Russian doll of a situation,  made up of plots within plots that grow ever more perilous,

Just as Allon is the consummate master of his trade, so too is Daniel Silva. There is no writer working today who is better at crafting a credible, mesmerizing thriller, one that reads like a James Bond movie. Allon, his wife Chiara, and his team, are by now old friends of readers, serve as the hook on which to reel us in. But Silva’s secondary characters are equally three-dimensional, and in this case include the killer for hire  who recently targeted Allon, the Don of the Corsican underworld,  and a peasant woman who can read the future in a bowl of water and olive oil. The exotic settings, which Silva brings to life with rich detail, and the intricate plots that never grow stale or predictable, add to the enjoyment.  As for the icing on these cakes, the geopolitical situations underlying all the intrigue provide the moral reason for the mayhem.

All of the Gabriel Allon novels can be read as stand-alones, but, for the richest experience, it’s best to take them in order. Highly recommended for those attracted to literary thrillers.

It’s a Mystery: The Deliverance of Evil, by Roberto Costantini

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My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Deliverance of Evil is the debut novel of Italian writer Roberto Costantini. It opens in 1982, when Italy is celebrating the winning of the World Cup, thus taking little notice of a young woman’s murder on the streets of Rome. Detective Michele Balistreri doesn’t have the luxury of  ignoring the crime, but the heavy drinking, chain smoking womanizer is arrogantly certain that he’ll solve this murder. The case goes cold, however,  and the next 100 pages of this book are dedicated to demonstrating what a pretentious, hollow lowlife Balistreri is.

Though not exactly  on fast-forward, the story eventually takes its readers to 2006, and Italy is again on the verge of  another World Cup. Balistreri has finally hit rock bottom, where he lingers until pulled out of his self destructive funk by the death of his mother. When his clears, he remembers his failure to solve the long ago murder, and, feeling a modicum of guilt, sets out to rectify the situation.   Don’t look for the emergence of a Columbo, but Belistreri stumbles upon a deadly Eastern European prostitution ring,  and, when more murders occur, begins to piece together some links between past and present.

The Deliverance of Evil is full of extraneous detail, sketchily drawn characters, and a wordy rather than action based plot.  But buried among the extraneous clutter are some valuable insights in Italy’s social problems, which include widespread political corruption, a flood of immigrants, and constant conflict between church and state.  Rather than repeatedly demonstrating Balistreri’s moral ambiguity, some exploration of his own conflicts would add interest (ala Kurt Wallander.)  This novel is too long by at least a hundred pages, and tighter editing might shape it into a tauter, more appealing work.

Archaeology News: Fifth Century Church Set to Open in Rome

How exciting, and great! Excerpt from an article at :

http://www.wantedinrome.com/news/2002808/fifth-century-church-in-roman-forum-to-reopen-to-public.html

Click on link for more photos.

Fifth-century church in Roman Forum to reopen to public

Restoration of S. Maria Antiqua church nears completion

Fifth-century church in Roman Forum to reopen to public

A 12-year restoration programme at the fifth-century church of S. Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum is almost complete.

Rome’s superintendent for archaeology Mariarosaria Barbera said that once the final works had been carried out on the floors, preparations would begin in January to cater for visits on a limited basis in the spring. Barbera said the church would then open to the public for at least three days a week, “allowing adequate breaks to ensure the microclimate.”

Located on the north-western slopes of the Palatine hill, the church is one of Rome’s earliest surviving Christian monuments. Its richly decorated walls contain 250-sqm of frescoes from the sixth to the late eighth century which have led it to become known as the “Mediaeval Sistine Chapel”.

 

Thriller: Inferno, by Dan Brown

Inferno (Robert Langdon, #4)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of how or why he came to be there. No sooner does he regain consciousness than a mysterious, spiky haired woman in leather bursts into his room with her gun blazing. She misses Langdon, but, sad to say, kills his doctor instantly. Once again, Langdon goes on the run, accompanied by the beautiful Sienna Brooks, who is also on his medical team. Bit by bit, she informs him of a plot by a mad geneticist, who will shortly release a virus upon the world, one that promises to curtail population growth just as the Black Plague used to do naturally. Clues left by the geneticist are excerpted from one of the most famous poems ever written, Dante’s Inferno. It’s up to Langdon to decipher them and save humanity from disaster. His quest will take them to Venice and Istanbul, where he’ll be required to search within the holiest shrines of the Christian and Muslim cultures.

OK, as usual, the exploits, close escapes, and intellectual feats of hero Langdon are over the top, incredibly so. But that’s what makes Brown’s series so much fun. With Inferno, Brown has tightened up his writing style, producing a novel with less unnecessary window dressing and more substance. The fate from which the madman is trying to save the world is a true one, which most realistic scientists agree will probably begin wreaking havoc very soon. Brown weaves in information about architecture, literature, medicine, genetics, and population growth while managing to keep the action speeding right along. And, darn it, Langdon’s such an appealing kind of guy. So pack away your common sense and literary pretensions, and enjoy another wild ride with Robert Langdon. Great literature? Nope. Great entertainment? You bet. And the movie is already in production.

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