Tag Archives: Italy

Elena Ferrante

After resisting Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books for so long, I finally read the first – My Brilliant Friend – for an upcoming book club discussion. As with the Hunger Games series, after reading the first book, I skipped to the last, interested more in how the characters lives were resolved than how they got there.

It’s no spoiler to state one of the two women who drives Ferrante’s first book disappears, nor to note the other is writing about their lives; this begins  My Brilliant Friend – before backtracking to their lives as young girls who become best friends in Naples. With a cast of characters who all live in the neighborhood, the first book curiously ends either as a cliffhanger for the next book or as a despondant resolution for women of that era – depending on whether you see the book as a soap opera tale or a feminist cautionary note.

The last book – The Story of the Lost Child – on the shortlist for the 2016 International Man Booker prize, offers more introspection and additional wry skepticism of how intelligent women fare in the world, but it’s ending and that of the series, reawakened my interest in the author’s identity. Not so much who she is but how she could manage to hide who she is so well.

I had agreed with her statement in an earlier interview about a book being received based on its own merit, regardless of the author’s background, training, or education – an anomoly in today’s literature where the author’s credentials often drive the interest in the book. But I was reminded of a comment by Jerry Seinfeld, the famous comedian, who said people would come to see him because of his name but would leave after ten minutes if he did not deliver funny lines. Ferrante delivers with her story of a complicated friendship, with her commentary on the effects of politics, social norms, traditions and expectations, and with the flowing language evident despite the translation from Italian.

But why hide? Suddenly, I remembered the conceit in Stockett’s book “The Help.” An incident (contents of the pie) known to be true could never be acknowledged without revealing the embarrassment of the receiver. If fiction follows truth, would the real Lila who had threatened to erase her friend’s hard drive if she ever dared to reveal their lives, ever acknowledge knowing the author? If the author’s identity was revealed, an immediate pursuit of her background would follow, with speculation on others in the book. Authors often say their characters are fictional amalgams of many – but not always.

On the other hand, the solution could be simpler. The real friend is really dead and cannot speak out – or better yet, the story is entirely fiction – a clever vehicle for the author to make statements about the plight of women. I like the last conjecture the best.

The Waters of Eternal Youth – A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery

9780802124807_p0_v2_s192x300   Guido Brunetti and I are old friends, so Donna Leon’s The Waters of Eternal Youth was a welcome connection.  This twenty-fifth in the mystery series featuring an erudite Italian inspector has me visiting Venice again;  a wealthy little old lady – albeit a countess – is the catalyst for an investigation of her granddaughter’s near-drowning fifteen years earlier.

Manuela, the beautiful fifteen year old who loved horses and feared the water, was saved from drowning when she fell into the canal, but not before losing consciousness for too long and suffering brain damage.  She is now thirty and has the mental capacity of a seven year old.  Her grandmother is convinced her falling into the canal was not an accident, and asks for the case to be reopened.  Although the statute of limitations would preclude any consequences if a villain were found, Brunetti decides to reopen the case, as a favor to his mother-in-law.

The alcoholic who saved Manuela suddenly remembers something, but before Brunetti can question him, the man is brutally killed.  In his clever and quiet way, Brunetti follows the trail that leads to a rapist turned murderer.  After the climax of catching the criminal, Leon offers a satisfying denouement that brought tears to my eyes.

As a long-time resident of Venice, Donna Leon paints a credible picture of the canals and bridges, with an insider’s knowledge of neighborhoods and eating places.  She sprinkles the narrative with comments on historical preservation, housing problems, and the new influx of African migrants.

Like most Italians, Brunetti enjoys a good meal and Paola, his patient wife, is not only an expert Italian cook but also a university professor of literature. Food is often enhanced with references to the classics.  When not eating or investigating, Brunelli ponders – while reading a book in the original Greek, or connecting criminal motives to that of Macbeth or Dante.

Reading another of Guido Brunetti’s crime-solving adventures offers the unique combination of Italian culture with crime mystery.

Review of another Donna Leon MysteryBy Its Cover

 

Guilty Pleasure

No book has grabbed my attention lately, although I’ve started several. “Visitation Street,” “The Edge of the Earth,” “Falling to Earth” – all have my bookmarks. Even in sunny Italy, “Beautiful Ruins” held no fascination.   Soon, two of my favorite authors – JoJo Moyes and Deborah Harkness – have promising publications that will save me.

In the meantime, I confess – I’ve been wallowing in Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series. With over 1000 pages in each book, I’m halfway through the second and enjoying my guilty pleasure.

Have you read them?

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Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

9781400069620_p0_v3_s260x420Having laughed through Ruth Reichl’s adventures as the food critic for the New York Times in Garlic and Sapphires and empathized with her Not Becoming My Mother and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, I looked forward to this foodie’s first book of fiction. With the taste of Italy still fresh on my palate, Reichl’s Delicious ! was the perfect combination of food, mystery, and romance – topped off with a recipe at the end of the book.

Using her experiences as editor of Gourmet magazine, including the sad demise of that publication, Reichl created a story around Billie, who quits Berkeley in her senior year to take a job as assistant to the editor of Delicious magazine in New York City, with hopes of becoming a writer. Surrounded by a crew of Reichl’s food-loving characters, including “Mr. Complainer,” the handsome regular customer at the Italian deli where Billie moonlights on weekends, Billie explores a mystery involving letters from James Beard before he became the famous chef.  Reichl uses the quest, with secret passages and coded letters, and Billie’s aversion to cooking, to add purpose to the rambling adventure.

Reichl includes the recipe for Billie’s mother’s gingerbread cake at the end of the book. Like my own mother, Billie’s mother refused to reveal the secrets of her baking. Billie and her sister guess at the ingredients and the cake is the catalyst to their successful Cake Sisters bakery. The recipe works; I tried it, changing it a little “to make it my own,” as James Beard suggests.

Like a Sophie Kinsella book for food-lovers, Delicious! is a delight and the perfect digestif after my week of sumptuous Italian eating. Bon appetit!

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Italian Memories

Emilio, the handsome Italian chef, made it all look so easy, as he flipped the asparagus in the heavy sauté pan. Although we will never attain his expertise or his passion for cooking, watching his demonstrations were inspiring. When we tore off the anchovy tail cleaning those glistening creatures – looking nothing like the ones curled up in a small can under olive oil – he would smile graciously and fix our mistakes. Our little pasta curls (like tortellini) did not have the finishing snap of his, but they still tasted good.

After class, one on my fellow students brainstormed the chef’s tips, and we vowed to remember them when back in our own kitchens:

• Flour before egg when frying
• Vinegar on a sponge to wipe the edges of the plate
• Break eggs by gently tapping against each other
• Separate yolks by carefully straining through your hands
• Split asparagus before cooking
• Never microwave chocolate to melt (my mortal sin)
• Never roll out pizza dough; stretch and make dimples with fingers; less flour makes dough harder to handle but better to eat.

These are all I remember, but when the fog of Italian wine and sweets – and gelato – lifts, I’m hoping to recall more. Do you have cooking tips to add?

My friends from Chicago are planning a dinner party to reprise some of the recipes we made. I know I will smell that lemon almond cake across the ocean to my lanai.

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