Rainy weekend reads in brief

Last weekend we had lots of fun plans but we were feeling a little under the weather, so when it pretty much rained non-stop we took advantage and just stayed at home. For Tim that meant playing computer games (mostly Elite: Dangerous). For me it meant reading. I got through four and a half books. Which sounds like a lot for two days, but it includes two graphic novels and a very slim collection of short stories, so I think that reveals how much time we actually spent watching TV (mostly Legion, which is nightmarish but also excellent, and confusing). As reading lots in quick succession makes it harder to write in-depth reviews, I’ll do brief ones instead.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which began with My Brilliant Friend, and that means I now only have one instalment left to read in the saga of Elena and Lila. With recent(ish) revelations about the true identity of Ferrante (a nom de plume) it’s more tempting than ever to confuse her with narrator Elena, who begins this book as a successful author about to get married. Her childhood best friend Lila, meanwhile, is at a very low ebb, working her hands to shreds in a sausage factory owned by a rich friend of the Solara brothers, who have terrorised the neighbourhood since they were boys. As with every part of their story, Elena and Lila switch fortunes and switch from close, regular contact to spending long months apart.

The writing is, as ever, beautiful. I marked so many great quotes as I read. This book explores marriage, motherhood, family and whether or not anyone can, or should, escape their roots. Elena is torn between the cultured elegance of her new in-laws and the promise of a life far from Naples, and the importance of telling the truth and siding politically with the family and friends of her childhood. Lila is, as ever, fierce and demanding, making life decisions that Elena sometimes struggles to understand. I am looking forward to, and also sad already about, reading the final book in the series.

“How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled…The old neighbourhood, unlike us, had remained the same. The low grey houses endured, the courtyard of our games, the dark mouths of the tunnel, and the violence. But the landscape around it had changed. The greenish stretch of the ponds was no longer there, the old canning factory had vanished. In their place was the gleam of glass skyscrapers, once signs of a radiant future that no-one had ever believed in.”

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The unreliable measuring device of words

the story of a new nameThe Story of a New Name
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is book two of the famed Neapolitan Novels, which started with My Brilliant Friend. This review does contain spoilers for the first book, which I also highly recommend. Arguably you could come to this book cold – everything you need to know from book one is repeated – but you’d be missing out on a key part of the experience in my opinion.

Elena and Lila are on the verge of adulthood. Married at 16, Lila is gradually realising that marriage is not a quick fix to make her brother rich, and that being married to someone she doesn’t love is fine until she does fall in love.

For Lila, marrying Stefano, the grocer, was supposed to be the lesser of two evils – her other rich suitor in book one being Marcello Solara – but either way Lila is tied up with the dangerous Solara family and not in the powerful position as one of their wives. Did she make the right choice? She spends frivolously and flirts with both Solara brothers despite her husband’s violent temper. Has she shut down all true feeling? She is smart and aware, surely she knows the dangerous ground she is treading?

“She was beautiful and she dressed like the pictures in the women’s magazines that she bought in great numbers. But the condition of wife had enclosed her in a sort of glass container, like a sailboat sailing with sails unfurled in an inaccessible place, without the sea.”

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Holiday catch-up

I have finally finished my first sweep through the holiday photos, so I thought I’d write a few tidbits about our trip to Sicily while the memories are fresh and the remnants of having thoroughly chilled out for a week are just about detectable.

We picked Sicily for two reasons: we like Italy (great food, great wine, great art, lovely people) and one of the ways to get there is via a train that goes on a boat! Guess how we travelled! Sadly we only had a week off work so we couldn’t sensibly do the whole journey by train (we did that four years ago to Florence and I can highly recommend it) but we were able to fly from our local airport to Rome and then catch the sleeper train to Sicily. It’s pretty basic as sleepers go – no dining car (we felt like royalty when we dined on the sleeper train from Paris to Florence, it was seriously classy) – but I still love the experience of falling asleep to the chug of the train, peeking behind the window blind at the lights of the towns and cities as you rumble past. The service arrives at the ferry port at a slightly unsociable 6am, which may be why Tim and I were almost alone up on the decks of the ferry (you can choose to stay on the train or get out for the half-hour crossing) but I feel my overexcited inability to stay asleep paid off as watching the sun rise as we pulled in to Messina harbour was pretty special.

Welcome to Sicily

The rest of the train journey was pretty beautiful: the sea on one side of us and Mount Etna on the other. Sicily really is gorgeous. Thankfully that includes Siracusa, where we stayed for a week of relaxing, eating good food and ogling fancy millionaires’ yachts, enjoying the warm sunshine and sea air.

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We stayed on the island of Ortigia, which is the historic district of Siracusa and it’s exactly what that suggests: old narrow streets, lots of churches and pavement cafes, largely pedestrianised, well looked after. The rest of the city doesn’t have so much to recommend it, but we did venture out to the Archaeological Park to look at the remains of the Greek ampitheatre and other ancient ruins.

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I swam in the Med for the first time in my life. And we spent a couple of evenings sat in a bar on the harbourside just watching the sun set. Man, I’m jealous of two-weeks-ago-me right now.

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On the way home, we had a half-day in Rome so we had a walk around the Roman Forums and Colosseum. Frankly the former were more impressive, but that might be the combination of crowds of people around the Colosseum, our camera battery dying just before we reached the Colosseum and the skies getting distinctly grey at that point.

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One thing Rome does have going for it is an absolutely giant bookshop in the Termini train station. In fact Italy in general seems to have a lot of bookshops still, which was nice to see.

Okay, that’s enough reminiscing. I miss holiday. If you want to see more of my holiday snaps, I am gradually adding to them to a set on Flickr.

Now the question is, do I carry on learning Italian using the Duolinguo app (which to be honest I think increased my confidence much more than my ability!) or pick a new language to learn a smattering of? (This question is also known as the Now That Holiday Is Over Where Shall I Plan To Go Next Syndrome.)

The power of a great title

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio
by Amara Lakhous
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This book is clever, funny, insightful, serious and lighthearted all at once. I bought it on the back of a glowing review I read somewhere (possibly Eva of A Striped Armchair? Sorry I’m not sure on that) and am so glad that I discovered both an excellent book and a very interesting new publisher to me.

This book blends together a tried and tested format with a very modern story and characters. It’s a murder mystery, with alternate chapters made up of diary entries by the now missing – and therefore prime suspect – Amedeo, and the chapters in-between each narrated by a different character involved in the story.

They all live in an apartment building on Piazza Vittorio in Rome managed by the redoubtable Benedetta, or “the Neapolitan”. In fact, the residents come from all over – elsewhere in Italy, in Europe and the whole world. Immigration, racism and racial stereotypes are the central theme here. This one building is home to people from different parts of society, including a university professor, a travel agent, a cafe owner, a film student and an unemployed former chef. Each has their own view of the world and their own limits on what they observe or question.

The humour is evident right from the start, with Iranian immigrant Parviz despairing at his inability to hold down a job, convinced that he keeps getting fired because he doesn’t like pizza; despairing at the concierge Benedetta’s persistent use of a word he thinks (wrongly) is a swear word; despairing at the police repeatedly arresting him for feeding the pigeons, which he cannot comprehend being a crime. It is clear that this is a series of misunderstandings, largely based on his almost non-existent Italian. But he is not being mocked. Rather, Lakhous is pointing out how easy it is for people to choose anger and resentment rather than try to understand and be understood.

And the misunderstandings continue, get worse even, among people who do (or can) speak the same language but fail to listen to each other. Or prefer to believe their own prejudices and stereotypes rather the evidence before them. This can lead to some horrifying assumptions, but the humour – often revolving around the apartment’s elevator, which is central to many a row between residents – keeps the tone from getting too serious.

This is a short, fun read that has a lot to say and does it supremely elegantly. I will be on the lookout for more from this author and this publisher.

First published as Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio in 2006 by Edizioni.
This translation published 2008 by Europa Editions.