Wednesday, October 31, 2012

REVIEW: The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne

The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne. Published 2012 by Hogarth Press. Literary Fiction.

 I think I need to read everything Hogarth Press publishes.

Hogarth is a new imprint of Random House, named after the press founded in 1917 by Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf. Our Hogarth Press is a new home for edgy, voice-driven fiction, and it produces about four titles a season. I've read three Hogarth titles now and each has been outstanding in its own way. The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, was a brilliant indictment of the war in Afghanistan; The Dead Do Not Improve, by Jay Caspian Kang, was a comic crime novel set in San Francisco among hipsters, gangbangers and surfers, and now there's The Forgiven, a searing, atmospheric story of lust and death in the Moroccan desert.

David and Jo Henninger are a wealthy British couple on their way to a weekend bacchanal at a lavish estate; Richard and Dally, their hosts, spare no expense to give their friends a getaway filled with bountiful meals, free-flowing wine, and sex, and drugs, and whatever else they want. But David has had too much to drink and the couple gets lost on the way. They hit and kill a young Moroccan man named Driss, who may or may not have wished them ill, but who is, nonetheless, very dead. David and Jo arrive at the party with the young man's corpse in tow. Richard and Dally and their servant Hamid wait to see what will happen next, which is that Driss's father shows up and makes David an offer he can't refuse.

In the mean time, the narrative alternates between the party and Driss's short life, including his adventures in France, which story may or may not be true. Osborne, a travel writer, excels at creating atmosphere and mood; the plot is enough to keep you going but it isn't really the point. What's interesting to watch is the way the characters develop, the way each reacts to the crisis and how the grow and change. The characters' interactions and reactions to each other make up so much of the action, their prehistoric prejudices collapsed into modern day post-colonialism and post-9/11 anxiety. The Moroccans in the book make their living selling fossils, the characters' attitudes towards each other as old and as integral to who they are as the ammonites and trilobites they buy and sell. Both sides are stained to the marrow with hostility and hatred; neither side can do anything to please the other, except, maybe, the one thing David refuses to do.

So, I loved it. Even though the plot is far from razor-sharp, I was riveted to this book which manages to be both slow to savor and quick to read. It's intoxicating and langorous but at the same time I really wanted to know what was going to happen. The answer, which doesn't come till the final line, is devastating. I strongly- strongly- recommend this to literary fiction readers and anyone else who would enjoy gorgeous armchair travel combined with a haunting, and haunted, narrative of lost souls.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

REVIEW: Witches on the Road Tonight, by Sheri Holman

Witches on the Road Tonight, by Sheri Holman. Published 2011 by Grove Atlantic. Literary fiction.

Winner of the 2011 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, Witches on the Road Tonight is a great Halloweeny read. The book follows the fortunes of three members of an Appalachian family- matriarch Cora Alley, her son Eddie, and his daughter Wallis. The narrative bounces back and forth through time and shifts perspectives as well, but the story is clear and easy to follow nonetheless.  The book opens in 1940., Photographer Sonia and mapmaker Tucker are documenting an area known as Panther Gap, for the WPA. Sonia is a documentarian who has traveled the world and Tucker is about to be drafted into World War 2. They hit young Eddie with their car and take him back to his house, remote in the woods. They are alone, but not for long; Cora comes home and invites them to stay the night. Neither traveler is ever heard from again.

In the present-day, Eddie, now older and retired from a career hosting the horror movie of the week, is sick with cancer and about to commit suicide. His sections are long, rambling letters to his daughter, a successful but very troubled television star herself. For her part, Wallis recounts the story of her family and particularly the story of Jasper, her foster brother, an orphan who idolized Eddie. His death is another mystery, another enigma that may or may not be solved.

My favorite parts of the book were those taking place in the past, in the thick woods of Panther Gap, dense and rich with atmosphere and the supernatural. Gruesome, strange rumors abound in the backwoods town after Tucker and Sonia disappear, and their disappearance continues to haunt Eddie and his wife, the patrician Ann. As Jasper comes into their lives, Wallis grows in resentment and jealousy, and begins to feel her grandmother's influence on her grow stronger.

Holman has crafted an engrossing novel of love, death and suspense; she's able to convey a lot of information through inference and suggestion, leaving lots of room for her vivid descriptions to stretch their lovely legs. I really enjoyed her writing above all else in this thicket of a novel. She creates as much out of a grimy New York backlot on a cold night as she does with the woods of Appalachia, and she colors her characters' emotional lives just as richly. I would recommend Witches on the Road Tonight for people who are not habitual horror readers but who would nonetheless like something enjoyable, suspenseful and just a little bit creepy.


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, October 29, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Hope everyone in Hurricane Sandy's path are keeping safe this week. We're waiting here in the Boston area for the storm to pass. So far, so good!

I'm reading Witches on the Road Tonight, by Sheri Holman, a Shirley-Jackson-Award-winning novel about three generations of an Appalachian family and their legacy of involvement with the occult. Cora Alley is a mountain woman who may have done something to a pair of WPA workers who visited her family; Eddie Alley, her son, becomes the host of a horror movie-of-the-week show and keeps a secret from his wife and daughter; Wallis, his daughter, struggles with her understanding and relationship with her father and grandmother. It's beautifully written, atmospheric and suspenseful as it goes back and forth through time and different perspectives.

I'm also reading Harry Hearder's Italy: A Short History, a thumbnail-sketch survey of Italian history from prehistory to the present. I'm about to start the section on the Late Middle Ages and I'm picking up interesting anecdotes and facts, like how the Greeks settled the island of Ischia as a trading post (we didn't visit Ischia on our trip but we did visit its neighbor, Capri, and the Bay of Naples area) and that Sicily was once an important Arab region where many mosques were built.

Finally, I'm still reading Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, her latest English-translated novel about two friends from Naples and how their relationship tracks the changes in that city over the years.

What about you? Riding out the storm or just having a regular Monday, what are you reading?

See more at

Thursday, October 25, 2012

REVIEW: The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin. Published 2012 by Ballantine Books. Literary fiction. Science fiction.

If you're like me and you read and loved The Passage, you probably already have The Twelve, and you've probably already started. If not, what are you waiting for?

If you haven't read The Passage yet, bookmark this review, head to the bookstore and read it. It's about a viral plague that lays waste to America and turns people into blood-sucking monsters, and the ways people cope with the remains of society hundreds of years later.

Okay, you're caught up?

Book Two of The Passage Trilogy picks up where Book One left off in terms of style and voice but not exactly in terms of plot. Instead, Cronin circles back to the beginning, Year Zero of the contagion, and brings to the foreground some characters who were mere extras in the first book. A man Passage readers saw briefly in a store, now known as internet phenom Last Stand Denver, takes on a crucial role in saving human society; and April, a teenager trying to save her brother, turns out to be a forebear of one of our most important characters. Bad guys come back. Lila, Wolgast's ex-wife, descends into deep delusion and mania, emerging as a chilling villain. Grey, a janitor presumed dead in The Passage, comes back as a monster.  But none of these characters can match Horace Guilder, a small man who discovers a way to be a very big man indeed, but at a horrifying cost.

Our old friends are back too- Peter, Michael, Alicia, Amy- and some new folks. After some warmup set in Year Zero and some in the near-past Texas,  it's full-on action in the present, divided between the society established in Texas and another in the midwest, in a place called the Homeland. The Homeland is a dark, brutal Orwellian dictatorship where "flatlanders" or ordinary people labor as slaves for the elite, or "red-eyes," who see themselves as God-like and omnipotent. Problem is, they're not, and the secret to their power is more than just the violence they inflict on the flatlanders. The so-called red-eyes are beholden to some very dark masters, and the day of reckoning is coming.

The Twelve is an incredibly detailed and incredibly gripping thrill-ride. Once you get started you will be turning the pages like crazy; like The Passage, I was reading it during TV commercials and pauses in conversation with my husband, because I didn't want to let a minute go by without finding out more. Cronin keeps the action moving, keeps the characters busy and moves the plot to a heart-pounding climax with everyone on stage. He punishes even our favorite characters with tortures physical and psychological and never loosens his grip on our attention. Everyone goes through huge changes in preparation for the final showdown of Book Three but, to my surprise, the book ends on an exhale of relief and readiness rather than the sucker-punch sigh of Book One. And once you finish The Twelve, you will be ready for that grand finale.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Favorite Quote

So the other day I was browsing at one of my favorite used bookstores and I came across a booklet called San Francisco Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the famous Beat poet and owner of City Lights Books in that city.

I haven't finished reading yet but as I was leafing through it last night I came across this line:

Don't be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

It comes from a poem called "Challenges to Young Poets" and it's great advice for all of us, to be open to new ideas but not at the expense of critical thinking and sound judgement. I think I may have to embroider it on a sampler!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Europa Challenge Holiday Swap!!!

Inspired by SantaThing and the Persephone Holiday Swap, I'm introducing the Europa Challenge Holiday Swap! Details below:

1. Email me at on or before November 5th (two weeks from today) with your name, address (all personal information will be destroyed after completion of gift exchange), a list of Europa titles you'd like and if you are willing to ship your gift internationally.

2. During the week of November 5 names will be randomly drawn and participants will be notified as to who they are playing Santa to (do please look out for this email from the Europa Challenge address – it may possibly go to your junk mail).

3. Using the list of Europa titles provided by your recipient, pick one to send.

4. Now you get to decide how to play Santa. You can order the book online, have it gift wrapped and sent straight on to the recipient…or you can pick it up at your local independent bookstore and go a step further by including a small gift that is homemade, bookish in nature or related to how you celebrate the holiday season, then wrap it all up and send it on its way. Please make sure you include a card revealing your identity. (Please indicate in your email if you will be including an additional gift.)

5. You can buy the book anywhere you want, but I would encourage you to shop indie. will ship anywhere; will help you find an indie near you for either an in-person visit or online ordering. Don't forget indies ship too!

6. Because lots of people are mailing during the holiday season, and because lines at the post office can be long, please try to have your package delivered before or during the first week of December. Take into account the extra time needed if shipping internationally!

7. On December 17th, let's all post to our blogs with what we've received, and what we've sent!

8. Spread the word  … the more the merrier! Please feel free to post this to your own blogs. You don't have to be a Challenge participant to take part in the swap!

If after signing up, something comes up to where you cannot participate, let me know as soon as possible so that I can make other arrangements. Please consider all costs involved before participating (for the book, for any shipping, the additional gift, etc.). This is meant to be fun, not stressful, and I wouldn’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed by the commitment.

If you have any questions, you can leave a comment or email me at

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sunday Salon- Busy!!

Well I had a great first week back at work. I don't work full time so "a work week" for me is light lifting for most people, I realize, but still. I had a cappuccino on the first morning to pull a little bit of my trip in with me, but I know I'm home now. It's funny though how I notice things I never noticed before, like how the place I go for a slice of pizza in Harvard Square sells lemon and blood-orange soda, not just the Orangina I always drink, or how the supermarket has blood orange soda too. The first thing I fell in love with about Italy was blood orange juice, on the plane. The flight attendant handed me a glass of this reddish juice and after one sip I was like, where have you been all my life?

Yesterday was my husband's 40th birthday and we celebrated in quiet style. We spent the day at Fun Spot, the largest indoor arcade in America, and took an unexpected and delightful side trip to Keepsake Quilting, one of the largest quilt shops in America. Fun Spot was loaded with video games and amusements, a bowling alley and skeeball, among other things. We happily plunked token after token into PacMan, Centipede, Frogger, Star Wars, driving games, Q-Bert and lots and lots of skeeball. It was our first time but we'll be back, with friends next time!

I'm almost finished reading The Forgiven, by Lawrence Osborne, a new novel from Hogarth Press, a new Random House imprint, about what happens when a British couple runs over a Moroccan boy on their way to a fancy-pants party in the desert. It's also about a collision of cultures, deep and prehistoric prejudice, distrust and disdain on all sides, and more. I've got like five books going now- I'm trying to finish The Twelve, I'm finishing The Forgiven, and I'm in the thick of Italy:A Short History, My Brilliant Friend and my bedside book, Travels in Siberia. On deck are Cloud Atlas and Witches on the Road Tonight, my Halloween read, if I get to it in time!

Today after work I'm headed to a quilt show where a friend is exhibiting, and then to a family party for a few folks who have October birthdays. More cake!

What are you up to today? Have a great Sunday whatever it is but I hope you let me know in the comments. More Sunday Salon on Facebook.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Reading, Listening, Watching

I decided to bring one and only one book with me on vacation- Edith Grossman's new translation of Don Quixote. Don Quixote is one of my bucket-list books and I thought a two-week trip would be a great opportunity to get started on it. As it turned out this vacation wasn't big for reading but I did read enough to know I want to finish. It's the ultimate picaresque- a bunch of stuff that happens. And happens. And happens.

I watched three movies total on the flights to and from Rome- an Italian comedy about a family who discovers their son is a porn actor, a French comedy about a single woman looking for love, and a Japanese film, a soon-to-be-cult-classic called Thermae Romae, about a Roman bath architect who travels in time to present-day Japan and uses Japanese bath technology to save the Empire. It may end up being my favorite movie this year.

I don't know if this movie will be released theatrically in the U.S. but I really, really hope it is. It would be perfect for my local art-house theater, and I would love to see it again, on the big screen! It was hysterical. And my classics-buff husband needs to see it too, and possibly add it to our DVD collection.

My husband finally persuaded me to watch The Avengers on DVD the other night while we were dealing with jet lag, so I can tick that one off the list now! I enjoyed it well enough. It was definitely a comic book movie in every sense.

I'm still stuck in Italy when it comes to what I'm listening to. One night in Florence we were sitting in the Piazza Vecchia after dinner, listening to a classical guitartist/busker named Justyna Maria Janiczak, and I decided to buy her CD on the spot. I'm glad I did, too, because it's going to be one of my favorite souvenirs. Here's a YouTube clip of her performing in Florence:

I don't watch much TV but I'm seriously considering watching "Homeland" since writer Justin Cronin endorsed it so heartily at his event for The Twelve the other night. What do you think? Is there something else I should be watching, reading or listening to that you love?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

REVIEW: The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. Published 2012 by Harper Perennial. Literary Fiction.

The year is 1988. Thirteen year old Joe lives on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota with his parents, his mother Geraldine a tribal administrator and his father Bazil a judge. By reservation standards, he is well off and his family is stable and prosperous. He likes to hang out with his friends and they're all obsessed with a new show on television, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

But then one ordinary Sunday his mother is attacked. Someone has raped and beaten her, and had meant to do worse. The family is thrown into chaos; his heretofore reliable and nurturing mother refuses to leave her room, or eat, or talk. His father is helpless in the face of his wife's trauma, and Joe is forced to take on the adult world long before he's ready. Frustrated with the slow pace of the investigation and the hurdles presented by tribal law, he goes out with his friends, especially his best friend Cappy, to find answers and seek justice himself. What follows is a slow-motion tragedy that will mark them all for life.

The Round House gives up its secrets slowly, and some not at all. Joe's investigation, alongside his father's, exposes buried family sagas, unspoken truths about reservation life and the white American world beyond it, and forces almost everyone into making painful choices and accepting horrific realities. The book is filled with supporting characters whose lives contain tragedies of their own; Linda Wishknob, a white woman adopted by an Indian family after her own left her to die as a infant, and Sonja, Joe's uncle's girlfriend, had, for me, the most poignant arcs. But everyone is transformed by the fallout of the attack on Geraldine.

I hadn't read Louise Erdrich before and didn't know exactly what to expect. What I found was a novel that was at once easy to read and difficult to fully assimilate. The Round House is a book that asks a lot of hard questions about guilt, remorse, justice, family, love and the search for quiet in our lives and in our hearts. The smoothness of Erdrich's prose belies the uncompromising toughness beneath the surface. I would encourage readers of literary fiction to pick it up but be ready for some difficult, emotional reading.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Bookish Italian Adventures Part Two- Visiting the Europa Editions Home Office!

I just got back from two weeks in Italy and one of the highlights of the trip was some time that I got to spend at the home office of edizioni e/o, the parent company of Europa Editions, in downtown Rome!

I made arrangements in advance to visit and was greeted by Simona Olivito, e/o's production manager. She was so sweet and showed my husband and me around the offices where we learned a lot about what goes on behind the scenes. She was also very patient with my choppy Italian until we switched to English-which did not take long!

Here she's pointing out the Wall of Europas, as I call it. The top two shelves are filled with the "pocket size" books only published in Italian. I did not know these existed! On the other side on the top shelves are boxes filled with out of print books.

Here are some shelves filled with original editions of books that e/o has translated either into English or other languages.

Did you know e/o did translations into Italian of Tom Perrotta? I did not!

Here is one of the office mascots, one of the hedgehogs fans have sent in honor of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. The walls of the offices are also decorated with photos of e/o authors such as Massimo Carlotto, Muriel Barbery and others. Fun!

Then, Jeff and I got to meet Sandro and Sandra Ferri, owners and publishers of e/o and Europa! They offered us cappuccino and we chatted with them for a nice long time about Europa, publishing, bookselling and more. They were so welcoming and kind to us- as was everyone in the office. It was such a pleasure to meet them and get to see "where the magic happens" at one of my favorite publishing houses. They gifted us with two Europa tote bags and a copy of The Fugitive, the last remaining Carlotto I have to read, along with their upcoming catalogs for the Winter season and the catalog highlighting their World Noir series. I learned that Carlotto has a new one coming out from Europa, a sequel to The Goodbye Kiss. I can't wait! We had such a wonderful time and really appreciated their generosity and kindness. I'm going to send them some little gifts and a note soon. Mille grazie!!!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Bookish Adventures in Italy Part One- Bookstores!

Typical Roman Cobblestone Street
My recent trip through Florence, Rome and Sorrento was a family vacation and my first time in Italy, so most of our time was spent visiting landmark sites like the Forum, the Vatican, the Uffizi and Pompeii. Our days were pretty highly structured and I didn't have much time for wandering. But when I did I somehow always seemed to wind up at a bookstore. I wonder why!

In Florence, I visited Giunti al Punto, an Italian chain bookstore with a small section in English and other foreign languages. It's located just down the street from the Pitti Palace. I didn't get a picture, but I did get a copy of Arrivederci Amore, Ciao, by Massimo Carlotto, which is my favorite book by that author. I thought it would be fun to have the Italian version for my collection!

Onto Rome, and here we had a little more free time and a little more luck when it came to running into bookstores serendipitiously. I did some research ahead of time on English-language bookstores in Rome but when I got there I decided
  • I wasn't interested in shopping for English language books in Italy because I can get those at home (duh) and
  • I would rather not worry about seeking out particular things and just enjoy what I happened to discover.
And as it turned out, the one bookstore I went looking for, an English language shop in the Trastevere neighborhood, was closed for a two-hour lunch break when I stopped by. That'll teach me to plan!

The Open Door Bookshop, Rome
I did visit The Open Door Bookshop in Trastevere,  a delightful store featuring used books in many languages. I didn't find anything to bring home but it was here that my husband decided to start hunting for a complete set of the Hitchhiker's Guide series in Italian- which he eventually succeeded in completing.

I also practiced my crappy Italian and chatted with the bookseller about being a bookseller myself.

Libreria Fahrenheit 451, Rome
The second independent store we visited was just off the busy Campo di Fiore, and it was called Libreria Fahrenheit 451, after the famous Ray Bradbury novel. The store featured new and used books, mainly in Italian, and also houses a collection of various editions of Bradbury's novel. I bought a book about the Italian movie La Dolce Vita and continued my campaign of terror against Italians by attempting to speak to them in a mangled version of their beautiful language.

Centro Storico branch of la Feltrinelli
Onward to the second and by far better of the two Italian chains I visited, La Feltrinelli. La Feltrinelli, from what I could gather, is like the Barnes & Noble of Italy but so, so much better. I visited three or four in Rome alone; two near my hotel, one in the Centro Storico neighborhood near the Pantheon and maybe another one somewhere.

The first one we visited, on the via del Babuino, was a straightforward affair and fun to browse through. The Centro Storico location featured books, music and movies, as well as a swell-looking café. I visited at the end of an extremely long day of walking so I didn't spend the time there that I would have if I had been visiting at my leisure, but I did pick up a great book on Italian cinema, Il Grande Cinema Italiano, by Roy Menarini. A year-by-year, movie-by-movie history of Italian movie making, it's going to be a great resource. It's all in Italian but I can figure out most of it.  We visited a third location near the first, this one a specialty Feltrinelli called RED (Read, Eat, Dream. Leggi, Mangia, Sogna), which carries a large selection of Italian food and other specialty items as well as books. Here, Jeff finished collecting the Hitchhiker's series!

Libreria Tasso, Sorrento
In the resort town of Sorrento we visited Libreria Tasso, a small independent bookstore named after two Renaissance poets who hail from the town, father and son Bernardo and Torquato Tasso. Tasso fils is the author of Jerusalem Delivered, one of the most widely read European poetical works up till the beginning of the 19th century, and Tasso père was also a famous poet of his day.

The bookstore is smallish and filled with books for locals and tourists alike; they have a selection of English language books as well as guidebooks and souvenir books and other items. I picked up a 2013 calendar of famous Italian films. Fun!

Libreria la Conchiglia, including many of the books they publish.
Finally, on the island of Capri we visited La Conchiglia, a small bookstore featuring rare reprints of books by and about people who've lived on Capri. The shop is a storefront to the eponymous publishing house responsible for producing these books. Jeff was thrilled to find a guidebook to the ruins of the Capri home of Roman emperor Tiberius; the ruins are a long hike from the center of town, and we didn't have time to visit, but the book is a little treasure for lovers of Roman history like my husband. The store itself was pretty and the staff was friendly and helpful.

Simenon gialli at a Roman Feltrinelli
I really enjoyed the time I spent browsing and shopping in Italy's bookstores. I learned that thrillers and mysteries are called gialli or yellow books, and saw a display of Simenon mysteries in yellow paper covers. Chicklit was called letturatura rosa, or pink books. I admired the beautiful covers and paper that even the cheapest books were published in, and admired even more the many elaborately printed and bound childrens' books and fine editions I came across.

Most places had at least some books in English, French and German as well as other languages as well as travel guides and souvenir books prominently displayed.

Overall I think my visits to Italian bookstores just made me want to learn Italian all the more, so I can read more of the beautiful and fascinating-looking things that are available!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sunday Salon- Back Home from Italy

Well, I don't know if you've noticed, but most of the reviews I published in the last two weeks have been of books from Italy, and that wasn't a coincidence. I didn't want to say anything until I was back home but I've been on vacation for the past two weeks with my husband and his parents, on a whirlwind trip through Florence, Rome and Sorrento. We had an incredible time; it was my first trip to Italy but they all have been several times already. They showed me around to all the sights, and we ate a lot of good food, walked a lot, and spent some great time together. I'll have a post later this week on my literary adventures, but here are some of the other highlights:

The Colosseum, Rome
Exploring ruins like the Colosseum and the Forum in Rome,

The crater of Vesuvius!
and Pompeii near the resort town of Sorrento. We climbed Mount Vesuvius, and

Perseus with Medusa in the Piazza Vecchia, Florence
saw beautiful works of art like the statue of Perseus with the head of Medusa, Michelangelo's David and his Sistine Chapel ceiling, and the Venus of Urbino and other fruits of the Renaissance in the Uffizi Museum of Florence.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence
We shopped, taking in the jewelry of the Ponte Vecchio, the leather shops and markets of Florence, the beautiful pottery of the Bay of Naples and everything Rome had to offer- and Rome has it all, including lots of fun bookstores.

Spaghetti with fresh truffles at Tartufi Nacci, San Miniato, Tuscany
We hunted for truffles in Tuscany and enjoyed a wonderful lunch with what the dog dug up, and ate a lot of fantastic Italian food throughout our visit.

Capri Island, Campagnia
We also got a day to visit Capri Island, which was so much fun and had the most incredible views. Jeff and I studied some Italian in the months leading up to our trip and had lots of occasions to try out our new skills. Italy is quite touristy and while there was seldom a need to speak Italian, it helped a lot to get our bearings and have some basic skills to fish out whether it was strictly needed or not. And sometimes it was! One of my favorite meals came from a highway rest-stop restaurant, not touristy at all and totally chaotic- and I don't think anybody spoke English there! So you never know.

Reading? I brought Don Quixote with me and got about 1/8 of the way through. I am enjoying it thoroughly but this was not a reading vacation. I didn't even read much on the plane since we had lots of options for movies and sometimes I have a hard time concentrating on plane flights. I did buy some books, but more on that later in the week.

Anyway it's good to be back, and I plan to spend today catching up on my reading, writing a blog post or two and buying some groceries. We have almost nothing to eat in the house!

What are you up to today? I hope you have a great Sunday. More Sunday Salon on Facebook.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011)

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011). Directed by David Gelb and starring Jiro Ono and Yoshikazu Ono. IMBD. PG. In Japanese with English subtitles.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) is a documentary about renowned Japanese sushi chef Jiro Ono, his tiny 10-seat restaurant in the Tokyo subway system and his legacy as a chef and as a father in an industry beset with changes. Jiro has spent his life refining the art of sushi; his restaurant has three Michelin stars, the highest rating Michelin gives, and it can take weeks to get a reservation. When you do get in, the meal, which is a work of art, can be over in as quick as 15 minutes. Minute for minute, the narrator tells us, it's one of the most expensive meals in the world. But people keep coming.

Director David Gelb tells the story of how Jiro became so good at sushi, how he's passing on his legacy to his sons and how the sushi industry is changing with overfishing and the ubiquity of sushi as a restaurant item. He presents a man obsessed with perfection, who insists on the highest quality ingredients, preparation and training for his chefs. And he tells us about a father whose own father abandoned him and forced him out on his own at a young age, who now works closely with his own two sons to teach them everything he knows about the art and business of sushi.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a really quiet, sweet, delightful movie that's perfect for a Saturday afternoon. I streamed it on Netflix when I was home sick and it was just the perfect thing for me to watch curled up on the couch with a quilt and a cup of tea. I found Jiro and his family to be fascinating; I loved hearing about how they work together, how their relationship has grown and how the two younger men have come into their own in the shadow of their famous and very demanding father- who nonetheless obviously adores his sons. At a mere 81 minutes, it's the perfect movie when you need a little "you" time, and the next time you see sushi at the grocery store or your favorite restaurant, it might even look at it a little differently.

Rating: RUSH

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

REVIEW: Me and You, by Niccolo Ammaniti

Me and You, by Niccolo Ammaniti. Published 2012 by Black Cat Press. Literary Fiction. Translated from Italian.

Me and You is a slender story you can probably read in an evening, but it has a quiet, insistent emotional intensity that means that however quickly you read it, it will stay with you forever.

Set in modern day Italy, it's the story of two teens, the time they spend together in the basement of an apartment building and the imprint that time leaves on both of their lives. Lorenzo Cumi is 14 and doesn't fit in. He is a loner whose parents value social success; Lorenzo wants his parents to think he's popular at school, so he invents friendships, anecdotes, parties. He goes so far as to fabricate a story about having been invited on a ski trip, but he wasn't, so when he's supposed to be away he's actually hiding out in the basement which he's prepared with food, music, things to keep him busy. But what he doesn't expect is the arrival of his beautiful, troubled older stepsister Olivia with problems all her own. Suddenly the difficulty of maintaining the lie of the trip is coupled with keeping Olivia at bay, covering her presence and getting along with her moment to moment.

The first time he meets Olivia, who is his estranged father's daughter with his new wife, he is drawn to her:
I had expected Olivia to be ugly and with an unpleasant face like Cinderella's stepsisters. Instead she was incredibly beautiful, one of those girls that as soon as you look at them your face burns red and everybody knows you think she is beautiful, and if she talks to you, you don't know what to do with your hands, you don't even know how to sit down. She had lots of curly blonde hair that fell all the way down her back and grey eyes, and she was sprinkled with freckles, just like me. She was tall and had big, wide breasts. She could have been the queen of a medieval kingdom.
But she's in trouble, and so is Lorenzo if his parents find out he's not on the trip. So the idyll he had planned for himself turns into a nightmare.

Me and You is an incredibly beautiful book. The ending is sad and probably predictable, but if you happen to see this little book in the bookstore I would urge you to pick it up if you like coming of age stories. I've already added Ammaniti's As God Commands to my to-be-read pile, and I'll be on the lookout for anything else from this wonderful writer.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review.

Monday, October 8, 2012

REVIEW: I Hadn't Understood, by Diego de Silva

I Hadn't Understood, by Diego de Silva. Published 2012 by Europa Editions. Crime Fiction. Translated from the Italian.

If you like teh funny, get this book now.

I Hadn't Understood is the story of sad-sack lawyer Vincenzo Malinconico, a loser whose luck is about to change. Or is it? His wife has left him; his son is undergoing a crisis; he's at the bottom of his profession, making, as he says, less than a waitress with no clients and nothing to do but sit in his Ikea-furnished office and avoid a yappy little dog who's making everyone in the building miserable.

Author Diego de Silva writes the book from Vincenzo's mad first-person point of view, and Vincenzo is hysterical. He rants. He goes off on tangents. He overexplains everything. And there's a lot to explain. His marriage to Nives is finished and she's living with an architect, but their relationship is nothing but unfinished business. At the same time, he's falling hard for Alessandra Persiano, a beautiful and successful attorney who, for some reason, seems to be very interested in him, too. Oh, and his career. Vincenzo is approached by the Italian mob to defend a loser like himself, one Mimmo lo Burzone, whose dog dug up a hand in his backyard. Mimmo runs a "chop shop" for the mob, but it's not cars he chops up and he's got some serious explaining to do.  Toss in the henchman the mob's got following Vincenzo around town plus Vincenzo's surly son and daughter, and let the games begin.

I loved this book. It is just so funny. There are long sections of nothing but whatever's on Vincenzo's mind at the moment, and those are the best parts of the book. The plot is interesting but a little thin truth be told; this is a book about voice and character and Vincenzo's head is one of the funniest places I've spent time in a while. Even the violence is cartoonish rather than gruesome. There is a dark side- all those bodies, all those fights, and the malevolent influence of the Mafia on the Italian legal system and its potential to corrupt a decent guy like Vincenzo are serious things. But don't dwell on all that. Just enjoy getting to know Vincè and following his adventures. It's worth it.

This is my 12th book for the 2012 Challenge so technically I could be done for the year, but the 50-odd unread Europas on my bookshelf say I'm not. Plus that one I'm going to buy at work today. You know how it goes.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Banned Book Week!

It's Banned Book Week, and to recognize that, I'm participating with Sheila of Book Journey (a great blog, by the way) in her Jump On the Banned Wagon series of posts about banned books. Stop by her site to see all of the participating blogs, many if not all of which are offering giveaways along with their posts.

Each blogger has chosen a banned book to highlight; my choice is The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I picked it up for Banned Book Week in 2003, because it was one of the few adult books on the lists I hadn't read at the time.

I first read The Handmaid's Tale in 2003, and finished it two nights before my wedding. If you have ever read this book, you know that it is probably the very worst thing to read when you're going through serious pre-wedding stress! All joking aside, it's very difficult for me now to articulate just the effect this book had on me. "Traumatized" gets close!

It's a dystopia set in the Boston area in a future both distant and recognizable. The United States as we know it no longer exists; the Republic of Gilead has replaced it following a bloody coupe and nuclear war. After the war, many people are infertile; some fertile women deemed unfit for "respectable" life in this ultra-fundamentalist religious society are enslaved as sexual surrogates or "handmaids" and a young woman named Offred is a handmaid to a powerful couple. Other non-desirable women are forced to become domestic servants or prostitutes, or sent to clean up the nuclear wasteland. Privileged women can marry but no woman is allowed to work, learn to read, or have her own money. Homosexuality is anathema; abortion, a capital offense. Womens' bodies and minds are state property.

The story is meant on one level to be a tale of what could happen if certain kinds of religious fundamentalism already present in the world were to get the upper hand. The thing about this book that scared me so is that in some parts of the world it already has, and every day in this country we see more and more fighting over what women are allowed to do and be and want.

The Handmaid's Tale is probably the best-known of Atwood's novels and the one of hers with which most readers start. After I read it, and after a recovery period, I went on kind of a Margaret Atwood bender, during which I read all of her novels over the course of two years or so. And I have to say, those were among the best two years of my reading life. It's not for everybody- believe me, I get that. But I do think it's a cultural touchstone. So I think you should read it.

And to encourage you to read it, I'm giving away a signed paperback copy of The Handmaid's Tale. I got to meet Atwood a couple of years ago and ended up with an extra (I know- an extra signed book? But yes.) which I would love to share. If you'd like to win it, leave a comment on this post with your email address and get back to me within 48 hours with a mailing address if you win.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review: THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT, by Elena Ferrante

The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante. Published 2006 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Italian.

A woman finds one day that her husband is leaving her. She's 38; they have two young children and a dog. The other woman is a 20-something the couple has known for years. At first, Olga, the scorned wife, thinks her husband might be having a passing spell of some sort. But soon enough it's apparent that it's permanent, that she's alone.

The book follows her descent into irrationality and anger, during which her life as well as those of her children is at risk. She sinks into a kind of sexual and physical morass, a loss of dignity from which one would think would be impossible to recover. The language is raw and unadorned, and I've heard that the original Italian is even rougher than the English translation. Olga's desperation and pain and anger and fright is hard to look at and hard to look away from. Early on, she confronts her husband, who wishes she wouldn't be so dramatic, so difficult:

Speak like what? I don't give a shit about prissiness. You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I'm supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife?...With these eyes I see everything you do together, I see it a hundred thousand times, I see it night and day, eyes open and eyes closed! However, in order not to disturb the gentleman, not to disturb his children, I'm supposed to use clean language, I'm supposed to be refined...
This kind of thing works well in novels because it's cathartic for the reader, but of course in reality she'd be locked up for some of the things she does and says. It's not a revenge fantasy- she takes it all out on herself and the kids which are like extensions of herself, and the poor dog, a symbol of the whole family- but it's still violent, psychically and psychologically.  Nevertheless it's an incredible book that would certainly stimulate a lot of conversation and thinking about what it means to be a woman, a wife, a mother. Ferrante does not fetishize the family, or children, or middle class marriage the way many American writers do.  Olga puts herself first and views her children as parasites at the height (or nadir) of her crisis.  The whole family is in chaos. She hits bottom, but then she comes back up enough to see the daylight and a way out.

So yeah, I really enjoyed this but in a way it was like reading a particularly gritty crime novel, one that you can't put down even when it's ripping you apart. Maybe we need a new category for Ferrante's books, domestic thrillers. Or something. She's got a new book coming out from Europa out soon- watch for it, and read this in the meantime.

This is my 11th book for the 2012 Europa Challenge


FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

REVIEW: Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi

Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi. This edition published 2009 by NYRB Classics. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock.

How do you review Pinocchio? It's a classic. You know the Disney movie about the puppet who wants to become a real boy, but have you read the original Italian story? Well, you should. For one thing, it's a quick read. For another, it's magical.

Carlo Collodi wrote it between 1881 and 1883 (it first appeared as a serial) and it went on to become a cultural icon Italy and around the world when Disney made its animated version. The NYRB Classics edition I read includes a great essay by Umberto Eco giving some idea of the story's importance in Italian culture; at a 2008 exhibition in Milan, there were 242 editions in Italian alone, never mind the numerous translations, tchotckes, dolls, and on and on and on.

The book itself as rendered by translator Geoffrey Brock is a wonder. Told in a simple and straightforward style, it's the story you know but not exactly. Made from a block of wood, Pinocchio is alive before he becomes a puppet. He's mischievous, disobedient and naive; he believes people he shouldn't and he disregards people he should respect. He wants to be a real boy but can't quite bring himself to do what it takes, until he finally figures out what it means to love someone.

I read Collodi's Pinocchio as a child but it's been years and years since I picked it up. It's just as delightful now as it was then. Pick it up for yourself or to share. I would recommend the NYRB edition both for Eco's introduction and for a very illuminating essay at the end by writer Rebecca West which sheds some light on some of the deeper literary, psychological and fantastical elements of the story, making it both fascinating and very entertaining.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Garage Band, by Gipi

Garage Band, by Gipi. Published 2007 by First Second. Graphica. Fiction. Translated from the Italian.

Garage Band is a lush, sentimental hymn to adolescence and nascent adulthood set in the urban backcountry of Italy. The story is about four boys in a band who find themselves gifted with a garage- a room of their own to practice in. The garage belongs to Giuliano; his father lets him use it as long as they don't get into any trouble. The boys come from different social and economic strata and have different problems with their family and with life; they're linked by their love of music as well as their need for escape.

Gipi's narrative is pretty simple, an impressionistic coming of age story outlining the struggles of each boy and the tensions between them. What makes the book is the artwork. Watercolor is washed over ink in panels both small and large, both detailed and panoramic. The panorama scenes in particular are so striking with their graded colors and barest hint of civilization. The exact setting is unclear but the book seems to be set largely in backlots, beaches and scrubby countryside and Gipi's colors and washes put you right there so you can feel the moonlight casting off water or the sun bathing the treetops.

Content-wise, I would say this graphic novel would be fine for teens and above. There are mild sexual references and plenty of teenage shenanigans. One of the boys, the troubled Alessandro, dabbles in neo-Nazism to the horror of his friends. They steal some things; they learn some lessons and grow up a little. The art is what really stays with me. I enjoyed the story and was moved by the boys' struggles but I just really loved those gorgeous paintings. Gipi tells the story almost completely through dialogue, which keeps things moving, but the best parts were those panoramas and those opportunities to slow down and just enjoy the view.

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.